Best Reads: July, August, September 2020

With the present on hold and the future looking turbulent, I’ve reacted by spending much of the last three months escaping into books. It’s worked quite well for me, with more than half of the forty-one books being four or five star reads.

I’ve picked out the ten that I think were the most absorbing as my ‘Best Reads’.of the summer. They’re a mixture of mainstream novels, crime fiction, horror and different flavours of speculative fiction. The only thing they have in common is that they lit up my imagination and lingered in my memory.

‘Fingerprints of Previous Owners’ by Rebecca Entel (2017)

”Fingerprints of Previous Owners‘ is an exceptional book: diverse, credible characters; beautifully crafted descriptions and perfectly inflected dialogue, and an innovative structure work together to deliver a view of the legacy of slavery, its modern faces and the ways in which a community descended from slaves deal with their heritage and their present challenges. 

This is not a polemic or a thinly-written anthem for the newly-woke. This is a novel that is firmly centred in the experiences, hopes, loves and frustrations of the people living on a small, formerly British, Caribbean island that once had a Plantation at its centre and the blood of slaves on its stones, and is now dominated by a foreign-owned, American-run holiday resort, built on the site of the plantation.

Most of the story is told from the point of view of Myrna, a young islander who spends her days supporting herself and her mother by working as a maid at the resort and spends her nights using her machete to cut her way into the thornbush-choked inland in search of all the things the older generations refuse to speak of.

Myrna’s narrative is interspersed with chapters called ‘Bench Stories’ Each has an islander sitting on a bench, telling a story from his or her life. We don’t know until the final chapters of the book who the stories are being told to or why but they’re no less powerful for that. They’re basically short stories with a common context and they are so intense. I’d buy the book for them alone.

When I finally understood what the Bench Stories were, their power was increased immensely and they ended-up re-framing the whole novel.

Myrna’s narrative was hard to take at times. While staying a very human, quietly told but emotionally rich story, it showed me the ways in which modern Corporate Colonialism carries the ethics of slavery with it. The removal of dignity. Turning local people into second class citizens. The assertion of the rights of the owners over the needs of the people. And the so-taken-for-granted-we-don’t-think-about-it racism. And none of it sounds like an exaggeration or a distortion. It’s simply a stark exposition of a global corporate culture that treats people as things.

‘Kitchens of the Great Midwest’ by Ryan Stadal (2015)

‘Kitchens Of The Great Midwest’ was a wonderful find, a book that lived up to its catchy title and striking cover and delivered an accessible, memorable, moving story framed around an intriguing storytelling conceit.

The life of Eva Thorvald, from her conception onwards, is le fil rouge that stitches together ‘The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest’. Eva’s life provides a sense of connection and continuity but, except for one chapter, when she is ten turning elven, Eva’s is not the main focus of the book. Each chapter of the book is focused on and told from the point of view of someone whose life has touched Eva’s. Each chapter also involves a dish that Eva will use by the end of the book. 

It’s easy to imagine how disjointed and burdensome a story structure like that could become but Stradal makes it work brilliantly. He never lets the structure distract from the narrative, like seeing a puppet’s strings. He uses it as a trellis, helping the story climb higher. 

I think it works so well because each new character is at the centre of their own world, is fully and empathetically imagined and has their own distinctive voice. As each person’s story is told, we get only the most indirect view of Eva, filtered through the passions and problems of the person the chapter is about but we get a deeply personal account of a key moment in each person’s life and what it means to them. Each character’s story is also linked to a dish which acts as a kind of emoji for the mood of the chapter, With each new dish we taste a new life and build up a sort of scent trail of intense flavours wrapped around memories of important moments.

One of the things that I loved about ‘The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest’ was how accessible the book is. The writing is engaging, honest, compassionate and deceptively simple. It made me smile and it made me cry but it never made me feel manipulated. 

‘American Spy’ by Lauren Wilkinson (2019)

American Spy’ is a book that subverts the traditional spy novel and uses its conventions and expectations to explore what it meant to be a black woman in 1980s America. It’s also a pretty good thriller.

The espionage hook the book hangs on weaves fictional characters into the real efforts of the CIA to undermine Thomas Sankara, a charismatic Marxist-Leninist Pan-Africanist who become the first President of Burkina Faso in 1983, with the twist being that I the main character was a black woman.

Anyone looking for a black female version of Jack Ryan is going to be disappointed. Wilkinson’s novel aks what kind of person becomes a spy and what it says about them. Specifically, she focuses on what it means to be a black woman, who is neither welcomed nor valued by the white male establishment and yet chooses to make a career in the FBI in the 1980s.

The style of storytelling shapes the feel of this novel. It’s written as a first-person account by Marie Mitchell to her two twin sons. The account opens with a description of an armed man breaking into their home and trying to kill them. The rest is an explanation, for the sons to read when they are old enough, of the background to the attack and the need for the flight from home that follows it.

This ‘letters to my sons’ format means that the book is as focused on their family history as it is upon the ins and outs of Cold War spying. It also means that it tends to be more reflective in style. There are moments of tension and there is a fair amount of action but most of the novel is a mother’s attempt to pass on to her sons who she is and who they should strive to become.

I found the storytelling style very engaging. Marie Mitchell is an unusual woman who understands that some of her choices are driven by her history with her parents and her sister and some are simply about the kind of person that she is. She doesn’t sugar-coat that or apologise for it but she does explain it clearly. 

As I came to know Marie Mitchell, my understanding of what the ‘American Spy’ title meant changed. At one point, she tells the story of her FBI Graduation Ceremony. She has been asked to speak at it but, in a training session shortly before the ceremony, her face has been badly bruised by her large, white, male opponent. Mitchel’s father, a senior police officer, sees her on the day of the ceremony, takes in her bruises and tells her that she doesn’t have to speak. He says:

‘You don’t owe them anything. You give them what you wanna give them. But it’s easier if they think you’re one of them. It’s easier to work from the inside. That’s what I try to do. I’ve been a spy in this country for as long as I can remember.’

There’s a lot in this book about what the excluded owe to those who exclude them and about how to make a place for yourself in a world that doesn’t want you to be in it.

But this isn’t just about being black in 80s American. It’s about being Marie Mitchel, a woman who grew up with a mother who left one day to return to Martinique. with an older sister who. from a very young age, was determined to become a spy, and with a father who worked within the system, providing them with a good quality of life but finding himself boxed in to a senior but powerless job. 

Marie Mitchell is someone who has learned to keep her inner self secret, hiding it behind constructed identities that she thinks will help her get what she wants. She does this because, at a very deep level, she accepts that she cannot have what she wants if she presents herself as she truly is.

‘The Son’ by Jo Nesbø (2014)

‘The Son’ is a masterful piece of storytelling and a great example of how to write a crime thriller. The plot emerges like a train out of night-time snow, growing bigger and more impressive as it gets clearer. There’s no cheating. No belief-stretching twists, just a very complex set of relationships between some very unpleasant people that get revealed one step at a time.

It’s a stand-alone novel about a son seeking revenge on the people who killed his father and abused him. They’re a mix of violent criminals, corrupt members of the criminal justice system and Norway’s privileged elite.

‘The Son’ is more than a violent revenge-fest. Although the ways in which the son wreaks his revenge are ingenious and violent, the main pull of the story comes from the slow reveal of the motivations of and relationship between the two main characters: the son seeking revenge and the almost ready to retire policeman hunting him.

The plot is full of twists and turns. I thought I had the whole thing figured out several times. It wasn’t so much that I was wrong, it’s just that there was always more.

The characters feel real partly because they are full of surprises. They each have something unexpected about them

The son, who the press nicknames ‘The Buddha with a sword’ is a gentle, almost serene person who not only takes no pleasure from the pain and death he delivers but often throws up immediately afterwards.

The ready to retire policeman is clever, unafraid of authority and determined to find out what’s really going on, He’s also deeply flawed, has his own agenda and is carrying a great deal of guilt for the mess he’s made of his life and the impact that’s had on his wife.

His newly-arrived ambitious young partner turns out to be both honourable and committed.

And, in the audiobook, all of this is enhanced by an excellent performance from Sean Barrett.

‘The Beast Must Die’ by Nicholas Blake (1928)

‘The Beast Must Die’ has one of the best opening paragraphs to a murder mystery that I’ve ever read:

‘I AM GOING to kill a man. I don’t know his name, I don’t know where he lives, I have no idea what he looks like. But I am going to find him and kill him …’

It’s a clever, surprising and original start to a clever, surprising and original novel.

The man writing the entry that opens what is his ‘murder diary’ is Frank Cairnes. Frank is seeking to revenge the hit-and-run death of his young son on the man who was driving the car, the man that hit his son on a quiet road in a small village and left him to die.

The first forty per cent of the book is in the form of Frank’s murder diary, in which he explains how he found the driver’s identity, how he got close to him and how he intends to kill him. It’s cold-blooded, credible, gripping stuff.

In the second part of the book, the perspective changes and we see Frank from a distance, attempting to carry out his plan. By this point, it’s fascinating to see him as others see him. He seems suddenly smaller, more vulnerable and less threatening. Then we get the first surprise when things don’t go as our hero planned. This is beautifully done and left me wondering what on earth could happen next.

From there onwards the books kept twisting and turning in surprising ways that constantly made me rethink what I thought I knew. The changes in perspective and twists in plot were done with such skill that novel felt smooth and stayed engaging.

All in all, it was a very entertaining read and a great example of a Golden Age mystery. Although this was written in 1938, it felt fresh and modern. It also works as a standalone novel.

‘Survivor Song’ by Paul Tremblay (2020)

‘Survivor Song’, is an intense character-driven story of two women struggling to survive as a deadly, fast-spreading virus washes across Massachusetts. Hospitals are overrun, there are shortages of PPE for front-line medical staff, disagreements between Federal and State authorities on what needs to be done, a struggle to impose a quarantine and small groups of self-appointed alt-right militia patrolling with guns.

It turns out that the virus is a form of fast-acting rabies, passed on by saliva. Within an hour of being bitten, people go rabid, lose their minds and start to bite others. Yep, you got it, a zombie plague.

But Paul Tremblay refuses to go down the route set out for us in all those zombie-apocalypse TV shows and video games. He keeps the focus human and real. He lets us continue to see the infected as victims, people who have been bitten and are losing themselves. He rejects the it’s.-the-end-of-the-world-so-let’s-abandon-civilization-and-kill-stuff knee-jerk reaction and frames the plague as something that will pass, something that can be survived, something where what we do and what we refuse to do to survive will define our futures.

As I neared the end of this book, with my emotions wrung-out, my mind buzzing with questions about what I’d do in these circumstances and with new real-to-me characters taking up residence in my memory, I tried to name what Paul Tremblay was doing to me, the kind of fear he’d been feeding me or letting feed on me.

It wasn’t horror, that hair-standing-on-end from a nameless fear feeling. It wasn’t terror, where the fear is like a pain so intense and overwhelming there is no room for anything else, not even the belief that it will pass. It was dread, the slow-burn cousin of the fear family. The one you see coming. The one that leaves you with your ability to think and act but slowly, inexorably extinguishes your hope.

What gives ‘Survivor Song’ extra bite for me is that it captures and amplifies the car-crash-in-slow-motion that has become daily life under COVID-19. The ending of the book goes a little beyond the car-crash of the plague. In some ways, it can be read as hopeful but I found it mostly sad. The survivors have a future but it’s a future salvaged from the wreckage of another generation’s dreams. It’s a message that survival has a cost and survivors have scars but they make other people’s future possible.

‘The Bone Clocks’ by David Mitchell (2014)

‘The Bone Clocks’ is astonishingly good. The audiobook was twenty-four hours long and I enjoyed every minute of it.

David Mitchell has managed to go toe-to-toe with modern fantasy writers in terms of creating supernatural beings and magical systems and a long struggle between darkness and light. Then he’s raised the game by embedding the story in a vividly evoked past and a credible near-future and telling it all through the eyes of engaging, credible, memorable characters.

David Mitchell let me take up residence in the heads of people who were very different from each other and often only loosely associated with one another and I believed in each of them, even the ones I didn’t like. In one case he let me occupy the head of the same person when they were in their teens and in their sixties and succeeded in showing me that they were and weren’t the same person.

The book goes from the nineteen eighties to the twenty forties. Capturing the decades that I’ve already lived through so accurately meant his descriptions of the parts in the future felt real and prophetic.

‘I Shall Not Want’ by Julia Spencer-Fleming (2008)

‘I Shall Not Want’ is the sixth book in one of my favourite read-this-when-you-need something-you-know-you’ll-enjoy-from-the-first-page series.

It starts with an action scene. Not the kind where a kickass hero struts his stuff but the kind where the good guy is filled with fear and asking whether $12 hour plus benefits is a good enough reason to get shot at when she has kids at home who depend on her. The action is intense. The outcome is potentially tragic.

And that’s just the prologue.

Going from a standing start to complete absorption in a few pages is one of the things that Julia Spencer-Fleming is good at. She also knows how to keep the series fresh. The character under fire in the opening scene is a woman police officer I don’t know yet I’m immediately in her head and at the same time wondering what her back story is. The officer’s story showed me how the characters I’ve grown to know over the previous five books would look to an outsider. Linking the officer both to the Police Chief who hires her and to the Priest whose church employs the officer’s grandfather as a sextant, provides a link between the worlds of the two main characters even when, for much of the book, they’re not willing to talk to one another.

Another way that Julia Spencer-Fleming keeps the series fresh is by pulling in contemporary topics that affect life in rural New York. This time the story pivots around the use of foreign, sometimes undocumented migrant labour on the farms, the relationship between a wealthy-three-generations-ago-but-now-bordering-on-white-trash family and the drugs trade and a tragedy that starts with a well-intentioned lie about identity.

Yet the main pull of the series remains the relationship between Claire, the Episcopalian priest who has now also re-upped into the National Guard as the helicopter pilot she was before her vocation called her and Russ, the recently violently-widowed, deeply guilt-ridden Chief of Police.

This could so easily be one of those cosy-but-clichéd relationships that some romance series are built on, but it isn’t. Julia Spencer-Fleming has built two very strong-willed characters, tightly bound by their personal ethical codes, granted them a sometimes overwhelming level of mutual attraction and respect and then has done terrible things to them and the people around them that make it impossible for them simply to be together. And she’s done it in a way that doesn’t feel forced or TV-Soap-contrived but which is a product of who these two people are and the environment that they’re living in.

If you haven’t read the other books in the series, don’t start here. Give yourself the whole series to enjoy and start with ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’

‘Bannerless’ by Carrie Vaughn (2017)

‘Bannerless’ by Carrie Vaughn, is a gentle, thoughtful, speculative fiction book that uses a murder mystery to tell the story of an Investigator’s life and to display the post-apocalyptic community she was born into.

‘Bannerless’ sets aside all our post-apocalyptic dystopian tropes, most of which either mourn what was lost or try to revive it or revel in the chaos and cruelty of the new world, and shows us the world through the eyes of Enid of Haven, a woman born after The Fall, for whom Before is a set of stories from her childhood telling of wonders, nightmares and mistakes that killed billions. She comes from a generation with nothing to mourn. A generation for whom the world is not a dystopia but their home, a place to be cherished and enriched.

Enid’s story is told through two inter-cut timelines. In the main one, we see Enid in her early thirties, taking the lead in an Investigation for the first time after three years as an Investigator, supported by her mentor, a man she has known since childhood. In the secondary one, we see Enid in her teens, leaving home for the first time, to travel the Coast Road to follow her first love, a charismatic bard, who takes his guitar and his voice and his wide smile from village to village.

Enid’s work as an Investigator gives us a look at the underbelly of her society, at the things that aren’t working and which people can’t or won’t fix for themselves but it also shows us the values the Investigators are upholding and the how these values change the way in which an investigation is done.

This is a world where pride comes from forming a household that is productive and stable enough to earn a Banner that entitles that household to birth a child and where shame comes from Bannerless births or breaking quotas and growing or catching more than you need. It’s a world that remembers billions of deaths as being caused by the unending pursuit of more and the prioritisation of me and now over us and the future. It’s also a world were violence is uncommon and murder is almost unheard of,

As I watched Enid investigate a suspicious death, I was fascinated by how different her role is from our own police. Investigators aren’t trying to wrangle the criminal herd, doing their best to enforce laws that are often broken and collecting evidence for others to decide guilt or innocence. They Investigate by consent. Their presence is requested. They Investigate to resolve disputes or to discover whether someone has done something that places their needs above the rules designed to allow everyone a sustainable opportunity to thrive. They are there to pass judgements against which there is no appeal. Yet, perhaps the biggest difference is that, when Enid asks her mentor for advice on how an Investigator should behave, his answer is ‘Be kind’.

Inevitably, the investigation is shaped by Enid’s own experience, which guides not only how she investigates but why she does so. The storyline that shows Enid in her teens gives us a view on how Enid became who she is as well as showing us the world she lives in. Her youthful passion for her travelling minstrel took her everywhere on the Coast Road, from prosperous settlements to settlements struggling to survive or settlements that chose to sit at the edges of the world, doing just enough to get by and then on to the ruins of an old city where a small number of people scrabble for a living rather than accept the Banner-driven rules of the Coast Road settlements.

Through all her travelling two things became clear about Enid, firstly, wherever she went, she felt the urge to help, to get involved, to fix things and secondly that she wanted to go home, to a place that was hers where she could be with people that she loves. In this way, Enid embodies the values the Coast Road is built on.

‘City Of Bones’ by Martha Wells (1996)

‘City Of Bones’ is set in a world that long ago was turned almost entirely into a deadly desert, leaving the remnants of humanity living in small stone cities built into coastal cliffs. The only people who can move freely through the desert are the Kris, a humanoid race bioengineered by the last of the ancient technologists to survive the worst the desert can do and with whom humanity has an uneasy relationship. 

From the start, I found ‘City Of Bones’ to be breathtakingly good. The world the action took place in was original, credible, richly detailed and very strange.

One of the things I liked most about the story was that Martha Wells presents it from the point of view of outsiders. Khat, the main character, is a Krisman, His partner is an immigrant from a neighbouring city who, although he used to be an academic, is not allowed to be a member of the University. Both of them are excluded from official commerce, which is reserved for citizens. This excluded pair make their living on the shady edges of the trade in ancient artefacts and try not to come to the notice of the authorities. Martha Wells understands that the excluded need to see the society they live in very clearly in order to survive.

Khat is charismatic, intelligent, loyal, lethal and a little broken. An early trauma resulted in him exiling himself from his people to live among humans. It also left him with a deep fear of confinement and almost no ability to trust anyone. Khat’s emotional detachment seems like a survival trait when we first meet him but, as we get to know him better, it becomes clear that it is a manifestation of a crippling emotional scar.

The plot reads like a thriller wrapped around a treasure hunt, except that Khat isn’t thrilled. Hee doesn’t want to be there but he can’t find a way leave and the treasure being hunted may very well be a curse.

These days, a good Fantasy Thriller needs a heroine to save the day and Martha Wells gives us one. In a normal fantasy novel, our heroine would be presented as bright, brave, more talented than she knows and determined to make things better. Martha Wells gives our heroine all those attributes but also gives us Khat’s view of her as naive and unconscious of her privilege.

The relationship between her (the princess-in-waiting / Jedi not yet come into her full powers) and Khat, (the excluded, scarred, survivor) is fascinating. Instead of the normal denied-attraction-blooming-into-romance trope, we have something more complex and truer to the nature of both people

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