Best Reads: October and November 2020

While I’ve spent a lot of time with books over the past two months, for the first time I’ve found myself setting good books aside, not because I don’t want to read them but because I don’t have the concentration or appetite for them at the moment. I’ve kept my focus mainly on genre books and comfort reads. I’ve read twenty-seven books, two of which ended up in my ‘Life’s Too Short’ pile.

For my Best Reads, I’ve picked out the eight that gave me the most pleasure. I have one speculative fiction book written by someone best known for her horror fiction, one thriller written by someone best known for her crime fiction, one murder story written by someone best known for his spy novels, one serial killer and three stories with ghosts of different kinds in them.


‘Prime Meridian’ by Silvia Moreno-Gracia (2017)


I first encountered Sicia Moreno-Garcia in the short story anthology,  New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color edited by Nisi Shaw. I thought her whershort but vivid story, Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister caught my attention.

‘Prime Meridian’ is a novella about Amelia, a young woman in a future Mexico City, deciding what to do about her dreams after her well-planned careerhas been derailed.Trapped in purposeless life, she focuses her hopes on finding a way to go to Mars.

I liked the way the near-future Mexico city was an extrapolation of current trends: gangs taking over the entrance to train stations for a day a charging commuters an admission fee; a rich elite living in a parallel world to everyone else; a lack of job opportunities pushing people into taking up roles as paid stalkers or, like Amelia, selling blood or selling her time on Friendrr, a service where people pay her to sit with them while they talk to her about their lives as if she was their best friend.

‘Prime Meridian’ is the kind of speculative fiction that is set in the future not so much as a prediction of where we are going but as a change in the surface manifestation of things to allow us to see ourselves and our choices more clearly. By setting her characters in a familiar but slightly changed environment which offers different choices and constraints, Silvia Moreno-Garcia shows us that our hopes and fears and loves and hatreds do not change fundamentally from one era to the next but remain the constants that energise us. That energy is shaped by the choices and constraints we have in front of us. 

What I liked most was that this was a thoughtful and engaging story with people who seemed real to me, making the kind of choices we all have to make in one way or another.


‘Petra’s Ghost’ by C. J. O’Cinneide (2019)

‘Petra’s Ghost’ is an emotionally powerful book about guilt and forgiveness. It follows a recently widowed man as he walks the Camino de Santiago. Burdened by guilt over his wife’s death, he begins to doubt his own sanity and we are left to judge how much of his reality we share.

In the weeks after I read ‘Petra’s Ghost’, it haunted my imagination, showing me how real the journey along the Camino had felt to me and how invested I had become in the fate of the characters and most of all of how this portrayal of the challenges and possibilities of forgiveness had touched me.

‘Petra’s Ghost’ is hard to label. It doesn’t fit easily into a genre. It sets out to do something difficult and chooses a unique path to do it. It uses an unreliable narrator to show us and him the truth and it does the whole thing with wit and compassion


‘The Name Of The Star’ by Maureen Johnson (2011)

The Name Of The Star’ was one of my favourite Young Adult reads this year. It was fresh and engaging, with a good story to tell, likeable characters, just the right amount of threat and an underlying optimism that I enjoyed.

This is the story of Rory Deveaux, a teenaged young woman from Louisiana, the daughter of academics, who is attending a residential Sixth Form College in the East End of London while her parents are on assignment to Bristol University.

Rory is easy to like. She’s funny and self-confident without being pushy or self-obsessed. She’s excited by being in London but she hasn’t fallen into the ‘I wish was English’ trap. She’s comfortable with and proud of her Louisiana background. London is feeding her curiosity, not changing her identity.

Two things drive the threat part of the plot: a near-death experience leaves Rory with the ability to see the spirits of the dead and women are being butchered in a way that mirrors the killings by Jack The Ripper.

Dealing with something this gruesome and staying within the bounds of a Young Adult book while still making the deaths of the women and the threat to Rory feel real, was quite an achievement.


‘Cold Moon Over Babylon’ by Michael McDowell (1980)

Cold Moon Over Babylon’ is a story of violent supernatural revenge wrought on a small town in Florida after a young girl is murdered.

It’s written with great power by Michael McDowell. He allows time for the reader to feel the pain and grief caused by the bad things that happen rather than going for the splashy thrill of the arterial spurt. He makes the people real, which makes the evil done to and by them, real.

The juxtaposition of a detailed description of everyday small-town life with acts of human violence and supernatural revenge amplifies the emotional impact of the killings, making the violence more tragic and the vengeance well-deserved.

‘Cold Moon Over Babylon’ isn’t a trope twist. Published in 1980, it pre-dates most of the tropes. It isn’t a something you can sit back from, munching popcorn and cheering when the person dumb enough to go into the dark cellar alone after hearing a weird noise finally gets theirs. This is horror that doesn’t allow you the luxury of emotional distance, doesn’t follow a well-trodden path and doesn’t go away when you close the book.

SOME WORDS OF WARNING: This Halloween, my wife and I watched the 2016 movie ‘Cold Moon’ which was based on the book. I wished we hadn’t. It’s one of the worst movies I’ve ever watched.


‘A Murder Of Quality’ by John le Carré (1962)

‘A Murder Of Quality’ is a book fuelled by hatred and compassion. Hatred for minor public schools in post-war England and compassion for the people who staffed and attended them. 

Le Carré uses George Smiley to vivisect the vanity, cruelty, mediocrity and relentless conformity of an English boarding school with an insight that only someone who has suffered through such a place can bring. He shows that the school is more concerned with instilling loyalty to one’s class and a belief in one’s superiority and entitlement than it is with either educating or caring for the boys who attend it. He captures the claustrophobia and myopia of living in an enclosed institution that turns staff and boys into inmates bound together by their shared incarceration.

Le Carré’s compassion for the masters and the boys is what prevents this book from becoming a polemic. Le Carré shows Masters who understand the hollowness of the life they lead, who know that the war left their school short on teaching talent and out of step with the mood of the times, and who, knowing this cling to the status afforded them by tradition and class. The boys he shows as abandoned by their parents, brutalised by their school, burdened with expectation and starving for any form of kindness. 

‘At its heart ‘A Murder Of Quality’ is a good murder mystery., with a complex plot, an intriguing setting and a memorable main character, the unobtrusive and reluctantly ruthless George Smiley.. Smiley sees the world clearly. So clearly that he has no expectations of anyone other than that they will behave like the flawed people that we all are. 

The novel is only 177 pages long yet it is filled with clearly-drawn believable, memorable characters whose presence transforms what could have been a puzzle-solving exercise into a set of personal tragedies.


‘The Secret Adversary’ by Agatha Christie (1922)

‘The Secret Adversary’ took ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’, pushed all the stuffy stuff to one side and replaced the omnicompetent male hero with a young couple, Tommy and Tuppence, who are clearly winging it and where the young woman is the one with the drive and flair.

It was a delightful surprise to find that Agatha Christie had written a thriller that wasn’t about solving a crime. And what a rollicking good read it was, a true ripping yarn that thought big and moved fast. Good grief, could you have a more dramatic start than being in the Lusitania on the day it’s torpedoed? How Hollywood is that?

Tuppence and Tommy are irrepressible. Tommy is a sort of Hastings but with a better brain and a willingness to use his fists on the bad guys. Tuppence is.. well… Tuppence and all the better for it. These two have none of Marple’s acidic insights into human nature or Poirot’s strutting use of a ‘method’. They’re two good middle-class kids who have known each other forever, have a had a war full of challenges that have given them confidence in their own abilities and then they’ve been kicked out into civilian life with no money and no prospects. In many ways, they are the exemplars of their generation.

I loved the lightness of tone of the book, including Agatha Christie’s willingness to pile on co-incidence after co-incidence and just smile through it.

The dialogue between Tuppence and Tommy is wonderful. At one point Tuppenence upbraids Tommy by saying

‘You’re more conceited than I am but with less excuse.’

I also liked that Tuppence and Tommy weren’t joined at the hip. They spent most of the novel apart with each of them putting themselves in harm’s way and relying on a mixture of courage, quick thinking and pure luck to see them through as they make their chaotic way towards the true identity of the notorious but anonymous criminal mastermind, Mr Brown.

Towards the end, Agatha Christie kicked the plotting up a gear. The action was rapid, the stakes were high and I found myself playing ‘Will the real Mr Brown please stand up’ right to the end.


‘One Was A Soldier’ by Julia Spencer-Fleming (2011)

‘One Was A Soldier’ is the seventh book in one of my favourite series, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s stories about an Episcopalian priest and National Guard Major and combat helicopter pilot Clare Fergusson and local Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne, set in Millers Kill in Upstate New York and it was the best yet.

Julia Spencer-Fleming has a gift for making topical, difficult issues personal and by doing so, moving them from abstract discussions based on politics and received wisdom into something about our shared humanity, our response to weakness and strength and our willingness to ask for and give help. That she manages to wrap an engaging mystery around the and keep developing an ensemble cast of characters is remarkable.

The issue this time is the impact being sent into a war zone has on the men and women who serve and the challenges faced by them and the people who care about them when they try to reintegrate themselves into their family, job and community while dealing with things that those who weren’t there will never understand. 

The story centres around two things: a set of people in group counselling to help them deal with the stress created by their experiences and a slowly-revealed plot about a major crime. The link between the two is Claire’s refusal to accept that the death of one of her counselling group was a suicide and Russ’ conviction that it was a suicide but that something else is going on.

In an inspired move, we get to see Clare Ferguson finally being in danger of breaking under the burden of her combat experiences. Julia Spencer-Fleming lets us see this from a distance by introducing a counsellor who sees Clare without any knowledge of her background, by letting us see how Clare sees herself and by seeing her through Russ Van Alstyne’s eyes. Clare has come back from her eighteen-month tour of duty with nightmares about what she did there and an addiction to prescription drugs that she’s not confronting. Seeing Clare so close to being broken and yet still being so much herself was a sign of how richly crafted her character is.


‘Darkly Dreaming Dexter’ by Jeff Lindsay (2004)

Darkly Dreaming Dexter is the first book of the series of novels on which Showtime’s ‘Dexter’ TV series was based. I loved the series so I decided to go back to the source and see what Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter looked like back in 2004. I’m glad I did, because now I have new series to follow and an opportunity to watch Dexter follow a slightly different path.

‘Dexter Season One’ followed ‘Darkly Dreaming Dexter’ pretty closely, so the plot wasn’t a surprise to me until the end, where the TV series deviated significantly from the book. 

What was a surprise was how refreshing it was to be inside Dexter’s head where I could appreciate his humour, understand some of his genuine confusion about how people behaved, especially when it comes to sexual attraction, and get a clearer view of his relationship with his ‘Dark Passenger’. Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter is just as likeable but also more chilling than his TV doppelgänger. 

Jeff Lindsay’s prose is clean and clear, effortlessly building empathy for Dexter while delivering a suspenseful plot lubricated by humour. The supporting characters are very clearly drawn, the dialogue is spot on and the pacing is perfect. 

Jeff Lindsay’s prose is clean and clear, effortlessly building empathy for Dexter while delivering a suspenseful plot lubricated by humour. The supporting characters are very clearly drawn, the dialogue is spot on and the pacing is perfect. 

I loved Jeff Lindsay’s narration of his own books. I’ll be back to listen to him taking me through the rest of the series.


2 thoughts on “Best Reads: October and November 2020

    • It was so bad that I threw the DVD away rather than donate it to a charity shop. I felt like I’d just be passing on disappointment if I gave it to someone else.

      Like

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