Best Reads: January, February, March 2021

The first three months of 2021 have felt like a long wait with my life on hold. Books helped me occupy my mind and lift my spirits, although I found that they had to be fairly good books to keep my attention. I read thirty-nine books over the three months. I’ve picked out the ten that gave me the most pleasure and prevented me from sliding into a reading slump.

Six of the books are by authors that I hadn’t read before and four were by writers whose books I always enjoy – Stephen King, Robert Harris and Derek B. Miller and JJ Marsh.They’re a mixture of mainstream novels, horror novels and speculative fiction. They cover a lot of ground. All they have in common is that they held my attention completely while I was reading them and gave me something to think about when I’d finished.

I hope at least a couple of them will find their way on to your TBR pile.

I find that I’m reading more and more horror novels. It’s not that I’m looking for gore, or even for frights, it’s just that some of the writers seem to see the world the way it is and have words to bring to life the grief, anger and violence in the world and use supernatural elements to highlight important things in our day-to-day lives.

‘The Lesser Dead’ by Christoper Beuhlman (2014)

‘The Lesser Dead’ is a book about vampires living in the Subways of New York in the 1970s.

‘Does the world need another book about vampires?’, I imagine you asking me. I think about all the derivative, money-for-old-trope vampire fiction that gets turned out each year, glamorising violence with a dab of romance and a hint of compulsion and the illicit joys of willing submission and I know why you ask the question so I pause before I respond with:

‘The world needs a vampire book by Christopher Buehlman. It might even need any book by Christopher Buehlman. He has re-thought the whole vampire thing from the ground up. He doesn’t pull any punches and he isn’t just writing to entertain. He’s writing to talk about how the powerful succeed on preying on the weak, not just because they are powerful but because the weak delude themselves about their own strength and their commitment to survival.’

Yeah, I know, it sounds as exciting a writing a philosophy essay, but Buehlman’s gift is to be able to demonstrate these big ideas in a story that is full of larger-than-life people, violence and enough surprises to keep you turning the pages eagerly right up to the last page.

I was very impressed by this book. It was fun. It was scary. It was much deeper than it seemed to be and it never lied to me, it just let me lie to myself.

‘The Sundown Motel’ by Simone St. James (2020)

‘The Sun Down Motel’ is a compelling revenge thriller with supernatural elements, focused on strange events at an edge-of-a-small-town- motel, The storytelling alternates between two timelines 1982 and 2017. This thought/anger-provoking, book is driven driven strong female characters, delivers a thriller/supernatural mystery that is tense and exciting.

‘The Sun Down Motel’ is original enough to be hard to classify. It’s not a ghost story. It is a thriller with ghosts in it but its essence is something different. For me, the heart of this story isn’t about seeing ghosts but about seeing the violence that men do to women and refusing to look away. It’s a book that is powered by rage at how we accept the murder of women, how we try to attribute the violence done to them to some flaw in their character or something inappropriate in their behaviour or simply a failure to be ‘sensible’.

‘The Sun Down Motel’ is a story about what happens when women refuse to look away; when they listen to each other; when they hold the men accountable. I think this is why all the main actors in the story are women. They don’t need to get into the mind of the serial killer; they need to get into the minds of the women who were killed.

‘Later’ by Stephen King (2021)

‘Later’ is a well-told, engaging story of a boy and the dead who talk to him.

The story is told in a traight- to-camera way as a first person account by an narrator who is easy to like and easy to trust. Jamie Conklin, now twenty-two, does his best to share the experience of his younger self from the age of six to fifteen, with occasional clarification or addenda based on what he learned ‘later’.

He shares the small intimacies of his relationship with his mother, a literary agent raising Jamie alone. He tells us how her business works, how she lost all her money and how she coped with that. He shares his slowly dawning understanding of the nature of his mom’s relationship with the female detective who stays over sometimes. It’s all seems low-key, real and easy to believe. So when he uses the same low-key tone to describe how he is able to see and speak with the recently dead, that seems equally real and almost as easy to believe.

Although Jamie tells us that this is a horror story, it doesn’t have a typical haunting or monster hunting plot. Mostly it’s about desperate women trying to survive. One isJamie’s mother who needs to find a way to avoid impending bankruptcy and one is a police detective who has lost it and who makes things worse with every action she takes. Each of them looks to Jamie for support.

I think this short novel shows Stephen King at his best.

‘Crossroads’ by Laurel Hightower (2020)

Laurel Hightower’s novella, ‘Crossroads’ has tremendous power. It brings fresh meaning to the term nightmarish because everything in this novella feels real, even the things that rationally can’t be real and agency seems both imperative and impossible 

The story takes place at a literal, metaphorical and emotional crossroads. Chris, the grieving mother of a teenage son who died two years ago, is perfectly aware that, while she believes she’s making rational choices, she might simply be delusional. She believes she has a chance to resurrect her son. She doesn’t know how any of it works or why it’s happening and she has no way of finding out. So, guided by the hope of saving her son and driven by a fear of losing him by failing to act, she sets out on a path of escalating sacrifice.

What makes the novella outstanding is that, in addition to the tension of a surface narrative of Chris making sacrifices to save her dead son, we have a meta-narrative about motherhood and identity and sacrifice that is powerful in its own right and we have an alternate narrative that places Chris as a victim of something dark and supernatural

I think Hightower’s achievement is that she doesn’t make us choose between these three narratives. She makes them all seem true, at least some of the time

Speculative Fiction was what made me first fall in love with reading. It’s nurtured my imagination for decades filling my mind with challenging questions and wonderful and nightmarish possibilities. I love the way it makes the normal problematic, pushes out the boundaries of the possible and keeps me thinking about what it really means to be human.

The three books I’ve chosen here come from across the spectrum of Speculative Fiction and they each reaffirmed for me that this is a genre that never gets old. ‘Sisters Of The Vast Black’ gives a fresh perspective on Space Opera. ‘Little Eyes’ is a look at how we behave in five-minutes-from-now future when technology makes us anonymous. ‘The Second Sleep’ is a well-crafted vision of a post-apocalyptic England that is very different from anything I’ve seen before.

‘Sisters Of The Vast Black’ by Lina Rather (2019)

Lina Rather described her debut novella, ‘Sisters of the Vast Black’ as being about nuns living in a giant slug in outer space, That was enough to hook my attention. I was delighted to find that it was more than a slick idea, it was an exciting and moving mini Space Opera that was filled with real women trying to do the right thing. 

This is the story of a small group the Sisters of the Order of Saint Rita who travel aboard their Convent/Liveship, Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, a vast, genetically engineered mollusc tending to the sick and performing marriages and baptisms in the furthest reaches of human-occupied space. The Sisters become entangled in the aftermath of a recent, massively destructive, war between Earth and its colonies and are faced with difficult choices.

The writing is accomplished, confident and accessible. It avoids being either didactic or polemical while still exploring the nature of personal responsibility, service, duty and different ways in which we come to love those we serve with. It positions hierarchy as an instrument for centralising power and reducing individual freedom, making people abdicate their personal judgement and do things they would normally be ashamed of.

The novella builds to a tense, action-packed, emotionally powerful conclusion that left me both satisfied and hungry for more.

‘Little Eyes’ by Samanta Schweblin (2020)

‘Little Eyes’ imagines the impact of Kentuki, a new global communications device, on lives of people around the world. Each Kentuki has a:Keeper and a Dweller. A Keeper shares their home with the Kentuki and lets it charge itself. A Dweller moves the Kentuki around and uses its camera, microphone and translator app to observe the Dweller and their home.

A purchaser can choose to be a Keeper or a Dweller but Keepers and Dwellers can’t choose each other. A blind automated irreversible process connects a Keeper with a Dweller as soon as the Kentuki is activated. It provides neither with information about the other. The Dweller can see and hear the Keeper but cannot speak. The Keeper sees only the Kentuki. The Keeper must inevitably surrender some anonymity in exchange for intimacy. The Dweller need only trade time and attention to become part of the Keeper’s household. 

By following the stories of five sets of Kentuki users around the world, the book explores what prompts someone to choose to be a Dweller or a Keeper and what drives the boundaries of the freedom each is trying to get or is willing to give up.

The five stories are told in parallel, moving through synchronised arcs from expectation to realisation. In each case, we see that, regardless of whether the person on the other side of the Kentuki link is strong or weak, nasty or nice, it is the fears and desires of the people whose stories we are following that end up defeating them.

‘Little Eyes’ is filled with abuse, sadness, disappointment and anger. It’s not a fun read or an uplifting one. It’s grim and often disturbing but it’s deeply memorable.

‘The Second Sleep’ by Robert Harris (2019)

The Second Sleep’ held me in its power from the first page by the strength of its prose and the clarity of its images. I was immediately immersed in the Somerset being described. I’ve lived in the region for a long time and it felt to me like coming home, except that it was not quite the same home I am accustomed to. That turned out to be part of the point of the novel. 

Only slowly did I become aware that the world I was seeing so clearly was in the right place but the wrong time.

Each new scene gave me a time and place clearly, often beautifully described, but one that is not our past or our present but an unexpected future.

‘The Second Sleep’ is a post-apocalyptic novel. Not one of those living-in-the-ashes aftermath post-apocalyptic novels but one where the apocalypse itself is a distant memory.

For me, what made it fascinating was the way this new present over-wrote our past and our present, a new occupant in a place that’s largely unchanged. Part of the conceit of the book is the dominance of the Church Of England and the use of the St. James version of the Bible as the basis for all authorised English. This brings back Thee and Yea form of speech which is archaic but familiar. It makes the new reality easier to understand but does not make it any less strange and unique.

Yet this novel is more than a clever idea, it’s a window into a whole world. What makes the view worth seeing is that the characters in the story feel very real. None of them are simplifications. They are complex people, capable of surprising me as I read about them. There is no proselytising. No political message. Just a view of real people, recognisable as people we might meet but whose beliefs and expectations have been shaped by different circumstances.

I’m using ‘Mainstream’ to tag books that are telling contemporary stories that aren’t bound by the conventions of a particular genre.’Quiet Time’ looks at cultural difference and identity in our always-connected world. ‘All The Lonely People’ is about how an ordinary life well lived can fall into grief and loneliness.. ‘Odd Numbers’ is dressed as a thriller but I’ve put it here because I think it’s a window into the world of an international group of young, affluent people.

Here’s my basic message about ‘Quiet Time’.

Read ‘Quiet Time’.

It’s Derek Miller at his best giving us an engaging, I-need-to-know-what-happens-next story that is often funny and someti

mes heartbreaking while still digging into topical big themes about how we live and how we define ourselves. He lets us look at those themes through the eyes of different generations with very different cultural backgrounds AND he does interesting things with the narrative form.

If all that isn’t enough, the story is narrated by the wonderfully talented Bahni Turpin. Don’t miss out on this one.

‘All The Lonely People’ by Mike Gayle (2020)

‘All The Lonely People’ is one of the best books that I’ve read in a long time. It is life-affirming and uplifting without being sentimental or overly optimistic. It’s a book where nothing much happens except that I get to know Hubert Bird and share his experience of life. By the end of the book, I was very glad to have met him.

This is a simple story with a couple of big surprises along the way. It’s the story of a life, told backwards and forwards at the same time, which means that I came to understand not only who Hubert Bird is now but who he used to be and how and why he’s changed. Hubert is in his eighties. He came to England from Jamaica in 1957. That’s a lot of change to cover.

In the present day, Hubert is an old man who has become disconnected from the world through grief. He is a man who lives more and more in his own head, spending hours in memory and imagination. Then he gets caught up in events and we watch him slowly, almost reluctantly, re-engage with people.

In 1957, Hubert is a young man filled with energy and optimism. A member of the Windrush generation he leaves behind his mother and siblings in Jamaica to find work in England. He faces the open, violent racism of the 1950s and battles through to find true love.

Part of the appeal of ‘All The Lonely People’ is that it demonstrates the value of an ordinary life well lived. At the heart of the story is Hubert’s relationship with his wife, Joyce. It tells of their courtship and marriage, of the hatred their mixed-race marriage provoked, even in Joyce’s own family, and of the children they raised together and about the changes that growing old brings. It also tells of the losses Hubert endures, the grief that overwhelms him and the isolation that engulfs his life.

Mike Gayle uses Hubert’s life as a way of helping us understand how loneliness can slow overtake us, becoming a self-perpetuating habit that shrinks our lives and undermines our confidence and our self-worth. Along with this understanding, Mike Gayle brings us hope and reminds us that we can find ways to make each other’s lives better

‘Odd Numbers’ by JJ Marsh (2020)

Do you remember where you were and who you were on New Years Eve 1999? I do. It seems both five minutes ago and something from another time. I was me but not the same me that I am today. 

Now, imagine you were in your twenties on that New Year’s Eve, gathered with close friends from university to celebrate your graduation and being on the threshold of wonderful lives. Then something happens that takes your imagined future away and binds you together in public grief and suppressed anger and guilt that others wouldn’t understand. What would you have done? Who would you have become?

These are the questions that JJ Marsh sets up in ‘Odd Numbers’, a book that she describes as her ‘first foray into psychological drama’.

The friends in this story are in Geneva, studying to be translators. They’re the kind of international mix that courses like that make possible: three men, a rich Czech, a Europhile American, an Englishman of Indian descent and three women, a Fin who describes herself as a ‘girly swot’, a Swiss-French woman with Finishing School manners and deep anxieties and an Irish woman who intends to become a journalist. The six of them hold their own private New Year’s Eve celebration on a remote lake in Czech. Only five of them get to see New Year’s Day.

The novel starts in the present day, with Gael, the Irish woman, arranging the tenth biennial New Year’s Eve party for the five survivors. This will be their tenth and final event. The rest of the story is told as first-person accounts from each of the five survivors, sometimes describing one of the ‘Odd Number’ year parties and sometimes describing the events of the tenth and final party.

We are shown the world as seen by each of the five main characters. We get to watch how experience shapes their thoughts and actions. Seeing them in a series of snapshots based around whatever spectacular location the Odd Numbers party is taking place in and having those snapshots taken by different characters gives a strong sense of the evolving group dynamic. This is spiced up as it becomes clear that each of the characters is hiding a reason for not liking the friend who didn’t make it to the year 2000.

I think JJ Marsh does a great job in describing the people the places and the attitudes, all of which give power to the final action of the book.

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