Ten Best Reads of July, August and September 2019

July through September was an unusual quarter because all of the forty-four books I read were genre books. No mainstream books pushed their way to the top of my TBR pile. Instead, I read widely in crime, horror, science fiction and urban fantasy. I’ve picked out the ten books I most enjoyed.

Short Fiction

Short fiction brought me some of the most enjoyable reads of the quarter. My favourites were “Loosed Upon The World” edited by John Joseph Adams, a collection of Climate Change Fiction and two very original novellas: “The Black God’s Drums” by P. Djèli Clark and “The Undefeated” by Una McCormack.

“Loosed Upon The World” (2015) is a Cli-Fi anthology with twenty-six short stories that imagine our future in a world undergoing dramatic climate change.

The message that they have in common is that the next generation will be facing some hard choices, that science may mitigate the effects of climate change but that the way we live today will not survive.

Most of the stories give grimly pragmatic views of how the next generation will play the hand we’ve dealt them. I find the stories so depressingly credible that I feel I need to apologise in advance to the next generation.

This anthology is filled with excellent, innovative Science Fiction. I’ve reviewed each of my six favourite stories separately.

“Shooting The Apocalypse” by Paolo Bacigalupi, “The Myth Of Rain” by Seanan McGuire, “A Hundred Hundred Daisies” by Nancy Kress, “The Precedent” by Sean McMullen, “Eagle” by Gregory Benford and “Hot Sky” by Robert Silverberg.

“The Black God’s Drums” (2018) is a sparkling little novella, set in an original and uplifting alternative history in which, in the late nineteenth century, New Orleans and Haiti are independent nation-states and the American Civil War had a different ending.

The story involves a wicked plot that could bring great destruction, a swashbuckling Haitian airship captain who is strong on technology but refuses to give ground to the old African Gods who call to her, innovative steampunk-ish science that has a dash of magic in it, two black nuns who seem closer to voodoo than Christianity, fanatical soldiers with a scary leader and, at the centre of it all, an engaging, fourteen-years-old goddess-possessed black street child who calls herself Creeper.

One of the things that I liked about this story was that all the good guys are women or girls, all but one of them is black and all of them kickass in their own ways.

I’m now a P. Djèli Clark fan. I’ve bought another of his novella, “A Dead Djinn in Cairo”  and I’m hoping that he will go on to write some full-length novels.

“The Undefeated” (2019) is a beautifully crafted novella about unconscious privilege, ubiquitous slavery and their consequences as seen through the eyes of a memorable, if not always reliable, narrator, Monica Greatorex.

I enjoyed how Una McCormack slowly built up my understanding of Monica Greatorex, both by showing me how she sees her current and past self and by letting me see the things about her to which she is mostly blind.

The novella seems to me to be about the corrupting effects of slavery on a society whose wealth depends on the work of slaves but whose sense of worth is maintained only by denying the humanity of those slaves. It looks at how blind the wealthy and powerful become to the reality of their situation, how hatred and the need not just for justice but for vengeance, builds in the enslaved and how neither side will willing acknowledge this.

Speculative Fiction

I love fiction that challenges me to look at things in fresh ways or comes up with new twists to old tropes. This quarter, I read three books that did that for me: “The Fifth Season” by N K Jemisin is epic science fiction with a human heart, “The Devil’s Revolver” by V. S. McGrath is a fast-paced Wierd West adventure. “The Rest Of Us Just Live Here” by Patrick Ness is an original and insightful look at coming of age on the sidelines of other people’s lives.

“The Fifth Season” (2015) is a remarkable book on the evil of slavery, the ruthlessness of empires, the hunger for freedom and the persistence of hope.

Jemisin uses non-linear but easy to follow storytelling to explore heartbreaking themes by telling the story of people I grew to care about against the backdrop of an original, fully-realised, far-future version of Earth.

Despite what it says on the cover, “The Fifth Season” isn’t a fantasy book. It is Science Fiction doing what Science Fiction does best, holding up a mirror to us and imagining the nightmare we are capable of creating because of who we are and the actions we might take to become who we should be.

“The Devil’s Revolver” (2017) was an exciting Weird West adventure that started at 100mph and didn’t let up.  Two chapters in, I was already hooked.

There’re enough things here that are familiar from Westerns that you slide into the world easy but enough that’s different or unknown that your curiosity stirs itself, sniffs the air and says “Feed me.”

The protagonist, Hettie Alabama is an easy to like seventeen-year-old girl with grit and a tomboy attitude. The baddies deserve to die. And there’s a shadow of menace that I could feel from the start.

I’ll be back for the rest of this Wild-West-With-Magic series.

“The Rest Of Us Just Live Here” (2015) is a clever, original, authentic, compassionate coming of age story with a twist. It tells the story of the kids who go to the same Highschool as the ones who are trying to save the planet from this year’s apocalypse but who live their lives on the edges of that drama.

I’d expected something light, quirky and insouciant, filled within in-jokes and Urban Fantasy references. I got something that went much deeper than that, getting beneath the skin of what it means to be at that point in your life where you’re not yet independent, not entirely sure of who you are, not understood by your parents, understand your parents too well to expect much from them and where the most important people in your life are the friends you’ve chosen and your sister because, well, you’re all the family either of you really have.

Golden Age British Detective Stories

Two of my favourite reads this quarter come from the Golden Age of British Detective Stories: “Gaudy Night” (1935) by Dorothy L Sayers and “The Murder At The Vicarage” (1930″ by Agatha Christie. Both of them still feel fresh and original, their power undiminished by time.

“Gaudy Night” is a beautifully written exploration of the importance and difficulty of personal choice, of the nature and relevance of academic life, of the possibility of finding love and the difficulty of deserving it, wrapped up in a mystery set in an all-female Oxford College in 1935.

I was in the book’s thrall before the end of the first chapter. In a few pages I’d already decided that I liked Harriet Vane and wanted to spend time in her company and that I admired Dorothy Sayers’ skill in creating empathy for and engagement with an introspective intellectual woman working her way through emotions that she’s trying to hold at arms-length.

Although “Gaudy Night” is a mystery story, it seems to me that it is also something much rarer, at least in fiction: a romance between two intellectual, introverted, independent, habitually rational people, with all the challenges and opportunities that that implies.

“The Murder At The Vicarage” is a sparkling virtual locked room mystery, filled with benevolent humour and illuminated by the first appearance of the formidable Miss Marple.

The narrator of events is not Miss Marple but the vicar of the village church, an intelligent, educated, observant, gentle man, not nearly as conventional as he believes his calling requires him to be but who has preserved an innocence of spirit quite remarkable in a man of his age.

He is the perfect foil for displaying Miss Marple’s true nature. On her first appearance in the book, Miss Marple reproves the Vicar’s world-view, saying:

‘Dear Vicar,’ said Miss Marple, ‘You are so unworldly. I’m afraid that observing human nature for as long as I have done, one gets not to expect very much from it. I dare say idle tittle-tattle is very wrong and unkind, but it is so often true, isn’t it?’  

This short precise reproof of the over-gentle vicar reveals Miss Marple’s as mind more prone to insight than empathy.

The Vicar’s interior response to the reproof:

That last Parthian shot went home.

summons up a vision of Miss Marple as a fierce warrior, feinting retreat while turning on her horse and firing an arrow with deadly accuracy. I suspect that, as I read the Miss Marple books, I will often be drawn back to that image. 

I loved the cleverness of the plot. When I knew who had done what, I was not surprised. Everything made sense, but only with the benefit of hindsight. While the story was unfolding, I changed my mind many times on who had done what to whom and why. Agatha Christie didn’t cheat but she led me through a maze of mirrors that had me jumping at shadows.

Modern Thrillers

The final two books in my top ten are modern thrillers that have very different styles: “Nobody Walks” by Mick Herron, a spin-off of his “Slough House” London spy series and “The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line” by Rob Thomas, a Veronika Mars novel.

“Nobody Walks” (2015) is a grim story of grief, betrayal and brutality wrapped in lyrical prose that sits like Chrismas Tree Lights on a barbed-wire fence.

“Nobody Walks”, tells the story of Tom Bettany, a retired spy who walked away from London years earlier but who returns to England to investigate the death of his estranged son. The investigation gets him involved with the eccentric owner of the computer games company his son worked for, drug-dealers carving a niche in London with a new drug that seems to have contributed to the death of Bettany’s son and Bettany’s former employer, Dame Ingrid Tearney, head of MI5, who has an agenda of her own.

This is a powerfully written book that stinks of despair from the first page. Bettany is a broken man, going through the motions of living and even then only allowing himself an anonymous, spartan, friendless, hopeless life as an itinerant meatpacker at a French slaughterhouse. His past is filled with pain. His present is as numb as he can make it. His future is not something he has any belief in or concern with.

His return to London forces him to confront the violent man he became in his former job and wonder if he is capable of being anything other than a weapon, pointed by someone else.

The descriptions of Betany’s inner thoughts and of the environment around him are often lyrical and original. They are beautiful in their own way but their real purpose is to emphasise the bleakness of the book, the moral bankruptcy of the people in it and to deepen the impact of Bettany’s brutal, relentless pursuit of revenge.

“The Thousand Dollar Tanline”
(2014) is a Veronica Mars novel. I’ve never read of novel-of-the-show before. I was surprised at how well it worked. Of course, that might be because I’m filling in all the blanks in the text with memories of the show but mostly I think it’s because the writing is smooth and fast and carried me along.

In this story, the now grown-up Veronica is investigating the disappearance of a young girl spending Spring Break at Neptune.

The start of the story is high-grade neo-noir. Then it gets personal.

The main difference with grown-up Veronica (and perhaps with the novel format) is how clearly Veronica sees the girl who has gone missing and the effect of her disappearance on others. It snapped me out of slick, witty, neo-noir and into something much more human.

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