Best Reads: April, May, June 2020

Lockdown changed my reading patterns this quarter. I set my reading challenges aside and went in search of books that would free my head to be somewhere else. Of the forty books I read in my quest for distraction, I’ve selected the fourteen I enjoyed the most. They’re a mix of mainstream novels, historical fiction, detective fiction and different flavours of speculative fiction. The only thing they have in common is that they lit up my last three months of reading,

‘Redhead By The Side Of The Road’ by Anne Tyler (2020)

‘Redhead By The Side Of The Road’ is Anne Tyler at her best. It opens with:

‘You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone. He keeps to himself. His routine is etched in stone.’

Yet this is not something most authors wonder about at all. Not unless it turns out that Micah Mortimer is an ex-CIA black ops assassin, hiding from his violent past, or a yet-to-be-discovered serial killer, or about to inherit a mysterious object from a distant, reclusive relative that reveals him to be the only one who can hold back the demon hoards as the veil between the worlds thins.

What makes Anne Tyler unique is that she can summon up the life of this ordinary, disconnected man in a way that combines empathy, acute insight and just a hint of wry humour. 

‘Beach Read’ by Emily Henry (2020)

‘Beach Read’ lived up to its title. It’s exactly the kind of book that I want to read on holiday. It made me laugh, cry, think, grin at its impudence, cheer for the good bits and fast-forward through the sex bits. Most of all, it made me happy.

‘Beach Read’ is a dual-natured book, accessible and engaging while also being clever and insightful. It has a double helix structure, like DNA. One helix is a straight RomCom about two writers, January, a writer of ‘women’s fiction’ and Gus, a Lit Fic writer. both struggling to write their next novel, who discover that they are neighbours for the summer and overcome some initial hostility to dance all the usual romance steps.

The other helix is about the process of writing, about overcoming writer’s block and about challenging the artificial genre boundaries imposed by publishing houses to make books easier to market. Each helix would be fine on its own but together they make something much more powerful and original.

‘The Jane Austen Society’ by Natalie Jenner (2020)

‘The Jane Austen Society’ is a must-read for Austen fans and for anyone who enjoys character-driven fiction with hope at its heart.

It tells the story of a group of people who come together at the end of World War II, in the small English village of Chawton, where Jane Austen lived the last years of her life, to try and preserve the history of her time there.

They are people marked by war and loss who have Austen as their common thread. Her books are their refuge and her flawed characters, passionate, stubborn, blind to their own needs or the needs of others, are valued companions who are all the more welcome because they are guaranteed a happy ending.

In one of the many discussions of Austen between the members of the Society, they speculate on what it must have been like to see people as clearly as Austen does, with their sillinesses and their veniality and small pettinesses all on display, and yet still be able to write about them with compassion and even give them some hope of happiness.

I think that combination of insight and compassion and hope is the defining attribute of this book. ‘The Jane Austen Society’ is a lovely piece of writing about a small group of people and what they know and are able to feel and say about themselves and each other. There’s a lot of grief and pain and awkwardness but there is also a backdrop of quiet hope.

‘Everything My Mother Taught Me’ by Alice Hoffman (2019)

‘Everything My Mother Taught Me’ is a short story in Amazon’s ‘Inheritance’ series.

The story opens with:

‘There are those who insist that mothers are born with love for their children and place them before all other things, including their own needs and desires. This was not the case with us.’

The dispassionate tone of the second sentence was the hook for me, a move into a minor key that says, ‘something is very wrong here and has been wrong for some time.

So I spent an hour listening to Alice Hoffman’s precise prose describing a girl’s deep understanding of her mother’s loveless nature, her choice to stop speaking after her father’s death and her decision, as she comes of age, on how to put a stop to her mother’s behaviour and achieve her own freedom by learning one of the lessons her mother taught her: put your own needs first

‘A Bad Day For Sunshine’ by Darynda Jones (2020)

“A Bad Day For Sunshine” was a great read for my fourth week in Lockdown when I needed a book to escape into that would make me smile, keep me engaged, give me a puzzle to solve and people to cheer for.

Sunshine Vikram returns to her home town of Del Sol, that she left when she was seventeen, to take up the job of Sherrif, an office she was elected to in absentia via a mysterious means used by her parents. She brings with her her fourteen-year-old daughter, a dark personal history and a secret determination to hunt down the man whose actions changed her life.

Even when the plot depended on an incredibly high number of coincidences, I was entertained by fast, witty banter, bizarre quotes at the beginning of each chapter (my favourite was ‘Predictive text: our own worst enema’), quirky crimes and a lot of not-entirely-serious drooling over the (many, many,) well-put-together men Sunshine encounters.

Most importantly, I liked Sunshine and her daughter, Auri. Think ‘The Gilmore Girls’ and add a deeply traumatising past and a tendency for both mother and daughter to put themselves in danger when they think it’s the right thing to do.

‘True Grit’ by Charles Portis (1968)

I finally got around to reading ‘True Grit, after having it in my library for years, because it was a Lockdown Buddy Read on Booklikes and I immediately understood why it’s a classic.

I loved the directness and simplicity of the narrative, which has Mattie Ross addressing the reader with her account of what happened and what she thinks about that.

Mattie Ross’ personality and values pulse in every paragraph of her account. I can see her clearly, not what she looks like, for she spends no time on that, but the strength of her will, the certainty of her belief and her courage, which seems to come from a refusal not to do what needs to be done, rather than from any infatuation with heroism or any addiction to revenge. It seems to me that she is the one who has ‘true grit’.

With no more than a straightforward telling of the tale delivered in a monologue form that shows a strong ear for language and tone, Charles Portis gave me Mattie Ross entire, from indomitable fifteen-year-old (boy, would the term ‘teenager’ be inappropriate) to indomitable forty-year-old independent woman of means, 

By the end of the book, I felt as though I had been immersed in a mind quite alien to my own but for whom I feel a reluctant empathy. Through her eyes, I’ was given a window in a period in American history that has since been graffitied over by self-serving myths and legends.

‘The Body In The Library’ by Agatha Christie (1942)

What a delightful surprise ‘The Body In The Library’ turned out to be.

Written seventy-eight years ago, it still feels modern and fresh.

It’s brimming with energy, humour, and sharp observations and has a twisty plot that kept me guessing right to the end.

I think the thing I enjoyed most about the book was the humour. From the start, ‘The Body In The Library’ reads like a rather droll assault on the more ridiculous elements of detective fiction combined with wickedly accurate evocations of what she calls ‘the ruling class of censorious spinsters’.

I’m now a confirmed Jane Marple fan. I love that Jane is driven by insight into people’s wickedness, frailties, vanities and self-deceptions, with empathy coming almost as an afterthought and only then for people that she sees as innocents. I realised that I wouldn’t want to meet her unless she was on my side and even then, she’d know things about me that I don’t even admit to myself.

‘Planetfall’ by Emma Newman (2015)

‘Planetfall’ is a future SF classic with ambitious storytelling, insightful characterisation and a unique premise.

At its heart, ‘Planetfall’ is the story of Ren, a cripplingly anxious woman, struggling with guilt for a past decision not yet fully revealed but which we know involves colluding in a lie at the foundation of a colony on an alien planet, a lie which, twenty years later, is in danger of being exposed.

The story, which is told from Ren’s point of view, occurring mostly in the present but including some of her dreams and memories, tells of a trip to stars, led by The Pathfinder, to an unexplored planet on which they find a large organic structure that they refer to as ‘God’s City’.

The power of the book comes mostly from the intimate portrayal of Ren’s journey, or perhaps her pilgrimage, motivated by love and faith, hindered by self-doubt, broken by a single event and the lies that followed it, crippled by guilt and struggling painfully towards hope.

Capturing this in any novel is an achievement. Wrapping it in a novel of planetary colonisation that is more a pilgrimage to meet God, is extraordinary. Inserting a seed of betrayal and deception at the heart of everything and revealing it slowly, like a dead body you can smell but can’t yet see, is inspired.

‘The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires’ by Grady Hendrix (2020)

‘The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires’ is a much darker and deeper book than the title had led me to expect.

It’s set in the South in the 1980s and tells the story of a vampire preying on a small community of women who meet each week in a book club to discuss books about serial killers.

Hendrix’s vampire is an embodiment of insatiable male greed. He’s charming and charismatic, has the knack of making the men around him want to follow him and feel better about themselves for doing so, even as he takes every opportunity, politely and with a smile, to undermine, demean, mock and threaten their wives. He is a corrupter, a sower of discord, a parasite. 

Hendrix’s vampire isn’t some stuffy Transilvanian Count pining for his glory days, he is 100% Pure American Prime Raggedy Man. He’s the hustle that has always sold the American dream without ever delivering it.

What I liked most about the story was its message that knowing the vampire is there, knowing who he is and what he does, isn’t enough to defeat him or even to convince the people who love you to help you because this vampire has seduced not the women but the men. He’s turned them into the worst version of themselves and used them as a rod to impose his authority. Any woman who stands against him risks losing everything and with no guarantee of success.

‘Girls With Sharp Sticks’ by Suzanne Young (2019)

Girls With Sharp Sticks’  is about girls at the ‘Innovations’Academy’ who are being taught to be ‘better girls’, obedient, respectful, compliant and pretty. It’s the story of one of the girls, Mena, waking up to the fact that the Academy is not what it claims to be and claiming her rage at what is being done to her and the other girls at the school. 

The plot and pace of this book make is a compelling, I-have-to-know-what-happens-next and Oh-no-they’re-not-going-to-do-that-are-they? thriller.

The first person narrative lets us share Mena’s journey, investing the reader in Mena’s struggle and binding us to her emotionally. It also lets the reader see, and often rage at, the gap between what Mena sees as going on and what we think is happening.

If you’re looking for a light, exciting, speculative fiction read, ‘Girls With Sharp Sticks’ will deliver it to you but along the way, my guess is that you’ll also find that you’re reading something that challenges the humanity of patriarchal misogyny and makes you question what a ‘better girl’ would really be like.

‘Dread Nation’ by Justina Ireland (2019)

‘Dread Nation’ turned out to be as cool and original as its cover. Set in in an alternate US where the Civil War was brought to an inconclusive close when the ‘Shambler’ dead started to rise and feed upon both armies, it tells the story of irrepressible negro girl called Jane McKeene.

Jane is almost ready to graduate from ‘Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls’, after which she expects to find work as an Attendant assigned to defend a rich white woman from shamblers and inappropriate male attentions. Instead, she ends up on an involuntary journey that keeps her in constant peril from the dead and from the living.

‘Dread Nation’ manages to be a lot of fun while avoiding being light-weight fluff. Jane is a remarkable creation: intelligent, resilient, brave and holding back a mountain of rage.

The book moves along at a clip, with smooth, effortless world-building delivered as part of a tight plot where current actions are set in context by old letters between Jane and her mother. I found myself wanting to turn the pages to see what would happen next but most of all I wanted to learn more about the irrepressible Jane.

The book is full of dry, angry humour, most of it directed at the dangerous stupidity of bigotted white men too convinced of their own superiority to protect themselves from threats.

‘The Grace Year’ by Kim Liggett (2020)

‘The Grace Year’ is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s a dystopian novel that manages to be both a deeply thought-through vivisection of what patriarchies do to women to keep them powerless and an action-packed, character-driven thriller filled with intense emotions.

We know from the first page what the Grace Year is supposed to be. Tierney, the narrator, tells us:

‘No one speaks of The Grace Year. It’s forbidden. We’re told we have the power to lure grown men from their beds, make boys lose their minds and make the wives mad with jealousy. They believe our very skin emits a powerful aphrodisiac, the potent essence of youth, of a girl on the edge of womanhood. That’s why we’re banished for our sixteenth year, to release our magic into the wild before we are allowed to return to civilisation.

The first half of the book, which does the initial world-building and describes the first few months the girls spend in their Grace Year was so thick with fear, rage, spite and betrayal that it was emotionally exhausting to read. The patriarchal cage these women are raised in is wrought in a fine filigree of taboos, violence, public shame and private unvoiced rage but it’s as nothing compared to what the women are willing to do to each other when they’re alone in their Grace Year.

In the second half of the book, Kim Leggit changes the pace. I won’t share the plot details except to say that what happens next goes beyond and comparison to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘Lord Of The Flies’ (Ligett has quotations from both prefacing the book). What Tierney sees over the remainder of her Grace Year changes everything: what she wants, how she sees the other girls and it fuels her rage at and contempt for the men who placed them all in this situation.

The ending is… well, I was on the edge of my seat, desperate to know what the ending was. The short answer is ‘very satisfactory’. It has the punch of a thriller with a brilliant denouement but it also has a deeper level of thought that gives an insight into how women, stripped of overt power, will still work together to nurture hope and find limited freedom through subversion.

‘Firewalkers’ by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2020)

‘Firewalkers’ is a novella that punches above its weight, delivering a well-imagined, skilfully revealed future where a young and poor underclass of ‘Firewalkers’ risk their lives to service the global billionaire elite as they prepare to escape a dying Earth and leave the rest of us to burn.

The world-building is very well done. Everything feels real and depressingly plausible. Tchaikovsky skilfully unpacks an Earth that is burning at the equator and drowning everywhere else; an Earth that has spent three generations of the poor and the desperate working to enable the mega-rich to flee the planet in huge luxury spaceships; an Earth where young Firewalkers head out into the killing heat to service the solar panels that keep the rich in air-conditioned luxury as they wait to take the space elevator up to their heaven in the sky.

It’s not a future I’d want to be part of but I can see it coming. William Gibson is reputed to have said, ‘The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ Tchaikovsky’s future is definitely already here. It’s in the burning of the rainforest in Brazil and the mining of diamonds in Africa and the refugees fleeing across the world. What Tchaikovsky does is make those things the ‘new normal’ of the future and imagines the attitudes and behaviours of the people born into it who know they can’t fix the planet and they can’t leave it either.

‘The Gaslight Dogs’ By Karin Lowachee (2010)

In ‘The Gaslight Dogs’, Karin Lowachee has built a powerful, convincing vision of a world in the throes of a familiar colonial conflict, has populated it with real people who have very little in common except their enforced servitude and then added an original, credible supernatural twist 

The first thing that hit me about ‘The Gaslight Dogs’ was the quality of the writing. Language here isn’t a thin skin stretched over the bones of a clever plot, it’s an invitation really to see the world that Karin Lowachee has created, to take in its sights and scents, its beauty and its ugliness with the fresh eyes and nose of a stranger. It’s not language designed to get you to the next piece of dialogue or the next action scene as competently as possible. Nor is it purple prose of the over-long self-indulgent guitar solo kind. It’s language that says: take the time to take in the place or you will not understand the journey.

This story is really two linked journeys, neither of which is voluntary and both of which are shaped by the obsession of a ruthless powerful old man with an insatiable hunger for conquest. We start with Sjennonirk, a young Aniwi spirit walker who is taken in chains from her home in the Arctic and brought south to a city built of brick and lit by gas, where high walls block off the view of the horizon in every direction. Then we meet a Captain Jarrett Fawle, a young man who, uncomfortable and unloved at home, only feels free when leading his men to hunt and kill the aboriginal tribes as part of the push to expand his country’s territory. He is sent home on leave and kept there until he complies with his father’s will. His father, General Fawle, is the man whose plan for power effectively enslaves both Sjennonirk and Captain Fawle. He sees them both as commodities to be exploited and makes their freedom conditional on meeting his goals.

It’s easy to see ‘The Gaslight Dogs’ as a story about the ruthless use of technology by colonial powers to gain territory, to paint a picture of genocide and environmental destruction but I see it as more than that. This isn’t a ‘good guys stand up to bad guys’ kind of story. Nor is it the Star Wars fantasy of brave rebels opposing an evil empire. The power of this story comes from its refusal to move to that Big Picture, Sweep Of History perspective. It stays focused on Sjennonirk and Captain Fawle and the choices that they make. Neither is a hero. Neither wants to be on the journey that General Fawle has sent them on. In their different ways, each just wants to go home. Each of them is both representative of and outsiders to their own cultures. Their struggle is not primarily a clash of cultures but of two individuals pushing against their fate.

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