Ten Best Reads of January February and March 2020

From the thirty-three books I read in this quarter, I’ve selected the ten I enjoyed the most. Two of them are Mainstream fiction set in an historical context, three are classic crime fiction, two are contemporary American novels and three are speculative fiction. I recommend any or all of them to you as rewarding reads.

Mainstream Fiction

The two mainstream fiction books that brought me the most pleasure this quarter both came to me by way of reading challenges. I read “Longbourn” for my “Pride, Prejudice and Pastiches” reading challenge and “The Weight Of Ink” for my “20 for 20” challenge to read twenty books from my TBR pile that are twenty hours long or longer.

“Longbourn” (2013) by Jo Baker tells the story of a young woman who makes the hard choices to win a life for herself and to share that life with the man she loves. No, her name is not Elizabeth Bennet. Her name is Sarah and she’s a maid at Longbourn. The story is mainly focused on Sarah, Mrs Hill, the housekeeper and James, the footman. The relationships between the three are deep and complex and entirely believable.

I picked up “Longbourn” in the expectation that it was a sort of “Upstairs, Downstairs” take on “Pride And Prejudice”. It turned out to be something quite different.

The conceit behind “Upstairs, Downstairs” was that the people upstairs defined the people downstairs, that their lives were more important and that the people downstairs lived through service to them. “Longbourn” rejects all of that. The servants have their own lives. They’re dependent on their employers and very much in their power. The people upstairs mostly cause problems for or mess up the lives of the people downstairs (Mr Bennet and his affair with Hill and Wickham and his predation on Polly and threat to James). Perhaps worse than that, some of the people upstairs don’t see the servants as real or even don’t see them at all.

It seems to me that “Longbourn” wasn’t really was an Austen adaptation, ti was historical fiction grafted on to Pride and Prejudice like grafting one apple tree onto another. Pride and Prejudice is the rootstock that provides a good environment in which the graft can flourish but the graft is the prize.

Although it shares the same timeline as “Pride And Prejudice” and features all the main characters, with some, like Mr Wickham, being pivotal to the plot, “Longbourn” stands proudly on its own. It is not a pastiche, it’s a work in the same universe. If you had never read “Pride And Prejudice”, “Longbourn” would still be a powerful read. If you have read “Pride and Prejudice” then your appreciation of both books is deepened.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the history of the period, in “Pride and Prejudice” or in a powerful story about a struggle for dignity and happiness.

“The Weight Of Ink” (2017) by Rachel Kadish follows two passionately intellectual women, Ester Velasquez and Helen Watt, separated by more than three hundred years but connected by words inked on paper and a need to know what is true.

Ester, orphaned in her teens, has been taken into the household of a blind rabbi and has moved with him from Amsterdam to 1660s London where, going against tradition, the rabbi permits her to become his scribe. In doing so, he ignites in her a hunger for the life of the mind which, as a woman, she should have no access to.

In 2000, Helen, sixty-four years old, in failing health and approaching a mandatory retirement that will end her career as a History Professor specialising in Jewish history, is invited by a former student to view a set of seventeenth-century Jewish documents that were discovered during a renovation of his house in Richmond. These papers lead Helen to piece together not just the truth of Ester’s life but of her own.

The writing is accessible, beautiful, calm and clear. I quickly found myself being immersed in the worlds of both of these women even though they were equally alien to me. Yet, by the time I was halfway through the book, I felt as if I had shouldered the weight of disappointment and sadness of each of the women. Ester and Helen are both serious, passionate, strong women who have few good choices available to them.

Classic Crime Fiction

I’ve only recently discovered classic crime fiction and I’m still amazed at the quality of the writing that I’m discovering. This quarter my three favourites where “Miss Pym Disposes“, “The Yellow Dog” and “Towards Zero”.

In  “Miss Pym Disposes” (1946) by Josephine Tey, Lucy Pym, author of a best-selling popular psychology book, is invited by an old school friend to speak at a prestigious girl’s physical education college which the friend now runs. She quickly becomes absorbed in the cloistered bu intense life of the college and finds herself faced with a difficult choice related to a death at the college.

Although it’s seventy-four years old, “Miss Pym Disposes” felt fresh and innovative and relevant.

It never took the traditional path for a mystery novel and yet it managed to be tense and intriguing.

It was filled with humour and with the honest human reactions rather than crime detection tropes.

“The Yellow Dog” (1931) by Georges Simenon was my first Maigret novel. Maigret was a surprise to me. I’d expected a “great detective” character, guiding the reader through the puzzle of a murder in a small town, but Maigret keeps sidestepping the role of centre-stage detective.

He’s a mostly silent presence who I came to understand did not see his role as solving a puzzle or enforcing the law but as bringing justice.

Simenon places Maigret in a similar position to Miss Pym in Tey’s book, he has to choose between what is right and what the law expects.

What “The Yellow Dog” is really about is Maigret’s profound distaste for the bourgeoise men who dominate a small, relatively poor, Breton town.

Yes, someone gets shot, then there is an attempt at poisoning, and a disappearance and the appearance of a giant of a man with a tendency to violence and then another shooting but, in all of this, Maigret’s focus remains on three things: the group of wealthier-than-every-one-around-them men who see themselves as distinguished citizens and prove this to each other by eating and drinking each night at the only decent hotel in town, the face of the waitress who serves them and the recurring presence of an unknown yellow dog.

“Towards Zero” is one of the best Agatha Christie books I’ve read.

Although it was published in 1944, it feels very modern. The pace is brisk. The paths of multiple characters are followed simultaneously without any initial explanation of how they relate to each other or the murder.

The characters, including the detective, feel like real people rather than cogs in the plot. The denouement requires a little bit of a stretch but Christie carries it off because, by then, the reader is less invested in the solution to a puzzle than they are in seeing justice done.

I rather liked the “Towards Zero” idea that a murder is not the start but the culmination of something and so, to be properly understood, the story of the murder needs to start not with the death but by following, over months, the paths of people who will collide with or contribute to the murder.

It was also nice to have an Agatha Christie murder where the protagonists were not filtered through the eyes and ego of a “great detective” but exist in their own right and are primarily interested in each other.

American Fiction

Joe Lansdale and Lee Goldberg are both well-known, successful novelists, whose novels have often been made into films and TV series but they were new to me and I was unaware of their reputations when I picked up their books. I went for “Fender Lizards” because I loved the title and I got “The Lost Hills” free from Amazon as a First Read. So now I have two new back-catalogs to explore and a new series to follow.

“Fender Lizards” (2015) by Joe R Lansdale is a story about being poor and being angry but not yet broken that manages to be honest, empathetic and hopeful without being patronising or too-soft-focus-to-be-true.

Joe Lansdale packed a lot into the 232 pages of this novel: what it’s like being poor enough to be living in a trailer in East Texas with your whole family; how to handle living your life angry, what family really means, how to take joy in being strong and swift, the limitations of solving your problems by taking a piece of 2×4 upside someone’s head and how to take on a Carnival roller derby team called the Karnie Killers.

“Fender Lizards” is about Dot Sherman, a seventeen-year-old girl, who lives with her mother, grandmother and baby brother in a trailer in East Texas, works six-hour shifts at the “Dairy Bob” as a “Fender Lizard” (a waitress on roller skates serving food to folks in their cars) and who is kinda sorta thinking about taking her GED ( Good Enough Diploma).

Dot isn’t a Disney character and this isn’t a Hallmark movie. Dot isn’t averse to a little violence, especially when confronting her sister’s abusive boyfriend. She finds it hard to trust men, which show how well she learns from experience, and she won’t take crap from anyone, especially her turned-up-out-of-the-blue-never-heard-of-him-before uncle or her went-out-for-cigarettes-and-never-came-back dad.

This is a remarkably cliché-free book that feels real if allow for a little luck, a little optimism and a lot of spirit from Dot and the people around her.

I was hooked by the premise “Lost Hills” (2020) by Lee Goldberg: a new series about Eve Ronin, a detective, promoted to homicide from robbery on the strength of a viral video of her making an off-duty arrest of a movie star tough-guy who was assaulting a woman. That he was the star of the “Deathfist” franchise and that she took him down and held him down when he took a swing at her explained why the video went viral.

From the start of the novel, I was impressed by the assured storytelling, the lean prose, the puzzle of a bloody gruesome crime and the freshness of the characters who vary from the detective tropes just enough to make them interesting and not so much that it stretches credibility.

I liked the apparent realism of the way the policing is done. Nothing too flashy or too histrionic, just hard work, determination and a little luck. The plot is clear, doesn’t cheat and still managed to catch me by surprise when everything turned out to be different than I’d expected.

Speculative Fiction

Nothing pleases me more than having a writer I’m already impressed by give me a book that gives me even more than I’ve come to expect. This quarter I was fortunate enough to have that happen twice. In “Junkyard Cats” Faith Hunter moved away from the Urban Fantasy she excels at and gave me a high impact Science Fiction novella. Then Gareth Powell delivered “Light Of Impossible Stars” and provided a deeply satisfying ending to his “Embers Of War” trilogy.

I also enjoy speculative fiction that takes me out of my comfort zone. This quarter I got that from Nicole Mabry’s “Past This Point” a highly topical novel about a lethal virus devastating the East Coast of the US.

“Junkyard Cats” (2020) is a remarkable, action-driven, near-future Science Fiction story that I consumed in two days, finishing it with a “Wow, that was good” feeling that was rapidly followed by, “When do I get more?”

It seemed to me that I could taste the energy and excitement freeing herself from the complex world she built and populated in thirteen Jane Yellowrock novels and four Soulwood novels (with a fifth being published this summer) gave to Faith Hunter. This novella crackles with energy and is stuffed with ideas. She has embraced Science Fiction in a way that makes it her own.

There’s the same level of weapon’s lust that was a constant in the Jane Yellowrock series but THESE weapons are truly scary. Set a few decades in the future and with the intervention of scavenged alien tech to speed things along, Faith Hunter has imagined AI Hive-Mind directed Nano-technology-enabled weaponry that is both plausible and innovative.

Then she’s rolled in biker culture with the Motorcycle Clubs becoming a line of defence against the invading machines sent by the Chinese.

Finally, she’s come up with a kick-ass heroine, this time one trying to live a quiet life, who is no longer quite human (nothing supernatural – think tech mutation) and a pride of junkyard cats with enhanced sentience and the ability to share what they’re seeing with each other. 

What more could I ask for? Well, another novella as soon as possible would be good.

“Light Of Impossible Stars” (2020) by Gareth Powell is a deeply satisfying read that does something very rare: it ends a trilogy in a way that not only doesn’t disappoint but excites and surprises.

Like it’s predecessors, “Light Of Impossible Stars”t was a fast-paced, page-turning, epic science fiction story, crammed with original ideas and strong world-building, yet what kept me reading were the characters in the book and the empathy and humour of the writing.

All of the books in the trilogy have followed multiple storylines that slowly reveal the big picture. The strength of the characterisation, especially in this final book, keeps those storylines intimate and relevant.

Gareth Powell is very good at letting his characters be themselves, without judgement or apology, whether the character is a genocidal psychopathic poet, a warship who has grown a conscience and resigned her commission, a non-human engineer who believes in work and rest and the world tree, a young woman trying to discover who or what she is or an ex-military officer looking for redemption through service.

I admire the truly epic scale of the plot and the depth of the world-building and that, despite how strong the plot and SF ideas are, they never push the characters out of the way.

“Past This Point” (2019) by Nicole Mabry was a solid, well-thought-through, read with a strong emotional punch and a fresh view on how real people react in a crisis. I’ve put it on my top ten for this quarter because it’s incredibly topical and because it took me outside my normal reading experience.

“Past This Point” is about the struggles of a woman in self-imposed exile in a New York City after the Eastern Seaboard has been quarantined following the outbreak of a killer virus. The day I started it, the Governor of New York declared a state of emergency because of the rate of COVID-19 infection.

At the start of the book, I thought I was getting a slightly more nightmarish version of current events. The writing felt functional but accessible and kept everything moving along. The main character was very easy to identify with and root for. And she had a dog so everything was good.

I soon realised that this wasn’t a typical read for me. The main character was nicer than the main character in most of the books I read and the whole thing had a wholesome feel that I hadn’t noticed was missing from almost everything I read.

Yet, as I read on, I found myself becoming differently engaged with these characters than I normally am when I’m reading a post-apocalyptic story. I believed in them and I cared about them and I wasn’t at all confident that they’d survive.

The subtext of most post-apocalyptic novels is that ruthlessness is the key to survival. It also helps if you’re an ex-ranger or former navy seal or have some kind of martial arts training or perhaps a paranormal capability that gives you an edge. Then you use your skills to win. It’s assumed that you know what winning means and that winning is worth the price and that we should cheer when you use the edge that you have over others to make it through.

“Past This Point” comes at the whole thing differently. The heroine has no special abilities apart from being happy with her own company, having a practical frame of mind and a habit of taking responsibility for herself. She feels the strain of surviving: the fear, the isolation, the helplessness and wonders whether she is starting to lose her mind.

The main difference is that she’s not ruthless. She hasn’t created an emotional distance between her and her situation. She won’t abandon her dog. She does what she can for the two little girls with the dying mother in the building opposite. She calls home and gets encouragement from her mother and practical advice on how to jimmy a lock from her dad. She remains the same person she was before the crisis.

To my surprise, the consequence of all this is to increase the emotional impact of the story. She doesn’t keep an emotional distance, so neither can I. I have to take in what it would really feel like to be in this situation.

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