Best Reads: Spring 2021

As the Corona Virus continues to thrive and my county continues to be led by self-serving, elitist, corrupt incompetents, I have found it harder and harder not to have my days dominated by all the things that I don’t like but which I can’t control. Sometimes it seems the only things I can control are the books that I read and the journeys that they lead my imagination on. They have been my refuge in the past three months.

I’ve picked out nine of the thirty-six books that I read, to share as best reads. I think they’re a remarkable set of books. Just knowing that they exist brings me hope.There are two excellent and original horror books, three unusual crime books, three speculative fiction books that pulled me deep into their strange worlds and one mainstream book that stands head and shoulders above them all.

I recommend all of them to you. If you don’t normally read these genres but would like to try something new, I hope one of these books gives you a starting point.

I haven’t previously singled out one book as THE best read of the quarter. Normally I have a tough enough time picking which twenty or so books I’m NOT going to pick as Best Reads. This quarter I’m making an exception because ‘Once Upon A River’ is simply the best book I’ve read in a very long time.

‘Once Upon A River’ Is a hard book to explain but an easy book to read and enjoy. If you love stories and storytelling, vivid characters, beautiful language and an intriguing mystery, this is the book for you.

The pivots around events on a winter solstice night in the late nineteenth century when the drinkers at ‘The Swan’ and inn on the Thames known for the quality of its storytelling, witnessed a badly injured man, still wet from the river, carry in a dead little girl and, shortly afterwards discovered that the girl, a mute stranger who triggered everyone’s protective instincts, was somehow alive again. Over the next six months, the stories of a wide cast of characters get caught in the current of the silent little girl as she is claimed by two fathers who are known to have a missing daughter.

Packed with strong characters and a compelling mystery, ‘Once Upon A River’ is also a beautifully told exploration of the nature of storytelling.

I strongly recommend the audiobook version expertly narrated by Juliet Stevenson.

These books are fine examples of different kinds of horror. The only thing that they have in common is how well-written they are. The first tells a story of guilt, wrapped in myth in contemporary America. The second is gothic horror, complete with creepy remote mansion, in 1950s Mexico.

‘The Only Good Indians’ by Stephen Graham Jones (2020)

‘The Only Good Indians’ is the story, four Indian men marked for death and pursued, ten years after the act that doomed them, by what initially seems like guilt but becomes a vengeful spirit. This may not sound like an original concept but the execution is breathtaking.

These are immersive stories. We get a ring-side seat on what’s happening inside each man’s head as his doom approaches.

All of the men are flawed, have made bad decisions, but they are all trying, in their different ways, for something different and better either on or off the reservation. The sadness in the book comes from knowing that these are not bad men but also knowing that they are unlikely to survive to live the lives they want to live. Although the story is one of supernatural vengeance for a wrong done, it felt as if this was just one possible version of the doom these men were under and that, spirit or no spirit, they face daily the chance that some act or decision or inaction will take everything away from them.

The ending is wonderful. Original. Full of hope but not fluffy. It’s a hope based on courage but tempered by compassion and powered by the refusal of one young girl to be doomed or to doom anyone else,

‘Mexican Gothic’ by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2020)

Sometimes, I walk into a building and think, ‘That’s a perfect example of a (pick your architectural style of choice) structure.’ and I take pleasure in the building for its perfection, regardless of whether it’s an art nouveau garage, a Georgian townhouse or a gothic cathedral. It’s the perfection of the form that counts. Of course, my pleasure is increased if the building also contains something that gives me a reason to visit it, preferably something that complements or contrasts with its architectural style: an art nouveau garage transformed into a gourmet food hall or a gothic cathedral gilded with a son et lumière display.

My pleasure in ‘Mexican Gothic’ was like that. It first won my admiration because it’s a perfect example of a gothic novel, with deeply disturbing dread seeping out of the shadows and slowly drowning your sanity in fear. The pace and tone are perfectly controlled and the fact that the form is familiar increases rather than lessens its power.

I’m having a great time reading contemporary crime novels at the moment. I like how they get under the skin of society and split it open. My best reads this Spring were all by women writers, all featured strong female leads and where set in tough towns: Detroit, Hamburg and Leeds.

‘Starr Sign’ by C.S. O’Cinneide (2021

I first met Candace Starr, a trying-hard-to-retire-and-not-quite-managing-it hitwoman, in ‘The Starr Sting Scale’. Candace Starr is a killer and she’s good at it. The first book showed that how she got there was as much about pain and betrayal and the criminal world she was born into as it was to do with Candace’s innate character but Candace knows you can’t blame mommy and daddy forever, especially when daddy was killed by the mob and mommy ran off when you were too young to know what was going on. So, she plays the hand she’s dealt, keeps her distance from people, drinks a lot, tries never to show fear and only kills people if she has to or if they really deserve it.

In the second book, ‘Starr Sign’, Candace gets dragged into a confrontation with the Detroit mob as she reluctantly looks for the mother she barely knew on behalf of a half-sister she’s only just discovered exists.

‘Starr Sign’ is a well-written rollercoaster, lubricated by dry humour, close observation of people and propelled by the energy of a central character who judges everyone harshly, especially herself

Candace isn’t an anti-hero. She’s not a good person doing bad things for the right reasons. She tries not to get involved at all if she can help it. But, when family is involved, you’ve sometimes got to do things. Even if you’re tempted to do all the wrong things.

The plot is clever. It feints like a skilled boxer and I fell for it every time and there’s a nice balance between wit, action and character development that makes this wonderful entertainment.

‘Blue Night’ by Simone Buchholz (2016)

In the absence of travel, I’ve set out to visit other countries by reading crime novels written by ltoocal writers in their native tongue. I’m looking for something that will not only give me a strong sense of place but also expose me to different assumptions and ways of thinking. ‘Blue Night’ was the first book on my list. It’s the sixth book in a popular series of German crime novels about Hamburg-based State Prosecutor Chastity Riley and the first book in the series to be translated into English.

Advertised as German Noir, it turned out to be something too unique for the noir label to fit well. unlike most noir detectives, Chastity Riley isn’t a visitor too or predator on the demimonde, she’s a part of it and through her and her friends, we become immersed in it. Chastity has built long-term friendships with a very diverse group of people: an ex-thief, an immigrant couple who run a café that is becoming a restaurant and a retired policeman with a personal vendetta against one of the leading figures in organised crime. She lives in the heart of the Kleis and is part of the community. She spends a lot of time smoking and drinking and hanging out with her friends and drinking and smoking and drinking some more.

The storytelling is non-linear, with a character rather than plot focused narrative. We follow a mature ensemble cast with a rich shared history. Simone Buchholz uses a simple but very effective device to show how their relationships have evolved and how the experience and expectations overlap and sometimes conflict. She intersperses the main 2016 narrative with thin slices of history going back to 1982 and moving forward two or five years at a time. In each slice, we get a paragraph or two from the point of view of one of the ensemble cast. Each slice changes or deepens our understanding of the 2016 narrative.

Playing against the normal noir conventions, ‘Blue Night’ is written with a quiet gentle humour that fights against and sometimes emphasises the sadness and disappointment that characterises so much of the lives of the core cast.

Add in an interesting puzzle, lots of local colour and a translation so nuanced you’d never guess the book was originally in a different language and you have a great read.

‘The Khan’ by Saima Mir (2021)

‘The Khan’ is the debut novel of Samia Mir, a well-known British journalist. It’s about a Pushtun crime family in Leeds. This is what she said the book was about:

The story is about first and second generation immigrants to the North of England. It shows the tension between a first-generation that left their homeland to make a better life, carving a place for themselves in a new country while trying to hold on to the culture and traditions of the old one and a second-generation, trying to find an identity for themselves in the land they were born and raised in while still honouring their family and their history. It gives a clear-eyed view of how racism, social exclusion and regional poverty push both generations to be inward-looking and self-reliant to the point where they have no expectation of safety or justice unless they can deliver it themselves.

The background of this gangster culture isn’t some faded memory of a long-left-behind Sicilian code of honour but a translation of a strong warrior culture to a new environment by those who lived the old ways from their birth. This crime family are Pushtuns, emigrants from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Khyber Pass region of Pakistan. The model that the crime family works on: having a Khan who rules via a Jirga made up of family heads, loyal to him is a mutation on life as it was lived in Pakistan. Saima Mir shows how such a system can protect a community, creating a kind of safety through mutual support and administering its own justice. She doesn’t romanticise or defend it. She just presents it as the framework within which the first and second generation of immigrants are operating.

Then there is Jia Khan, the dark heart of this book. She is the oldest daughter of the Khan and he has raised her to be fierce and competitive, urging her to:

“Be twice as good as men and four times as good as white men.”

At the start of the book, when I saw the life Jia had built for herself as a sought-after Barrister in London, I thought she was a strong, unconventional woman, successfully straddling the gap between the world she was born to and the world she has forced her way to the top off. It was only when she goes home to Leeds to deal with a family crisis that I saw who Jia really was: someone ruthless, relentless and remorseless.

Discovering her history, her personality and her plans are what carry the reader forward. Every twist of the plot gives a new surprise and reveals more of Jia’s nature and ambitions. Jia is the reason that I stayed uo late to finish ‘The Khan’ and she’s the strongest memory I have of the book. I hope I never meet anyone like her.

I was very fortunate to find three really good and really different Speculative Fiction books this Spring. They cover quite a range from an alternative nineteenth century Cairo with magic-enabled technology, through a far future empire powered by necromancy, to a balladic tale of world where the human population has barely survived the goblin wars. I heartily recommend them all.

‘A Master Of Djinn’ by P. Djéli Clark (2021)

‘A Master Of Djinn’ is the full length novel that I’d been waiting for from P. Djèli Clark.

His novellas , A Dead Djinn In Cario’,  and ‘The Haunting of Tram Car 015’ had already immersed me in an alternative Cairo in 1912 where the return of Djinn to the world has enabled Egypt to kick out the foreign powers and create a modern magic-enabled city with humans and Djinn as citizens and introduced me to the flamboyant, talented and fearless Special Investigator, Fatma el-Sha’arawi and her colleagues at the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities.

I was excited to see what he would deliver in a full-length novel. He excelled himself.

Although the plot, twisted around a mystery of who is doing the killing and what they want, is complicated and delivers tension, exciting action and a satisfying solution to a mystery (which the author coached me to arrive at just a little ahead of the Big Reveal so that I could enjoy my own cleverness) what I liked most was that it is the perfect vehicle for displaying this colourful world and develop some strong, believable relationships while mocking imperialism, racism and misogyny. 

The most powerful characters in the book are all women and they are magnificent in their diversity and individuality. The magic systems and magical races draw heavily on Persian and Arab myths that I know little about but which are made to seem real. I loved the way Cairo society is shown as normal (if normal means vibrant, chaotic and rapidly changing) while the Europeans, especially the British, are shown as out-of-touch and arrogant, convinced of their own superiority even as their power wanes.

‘Gideon The Ninth’ by Tamsyn Muir (2017)

I loved how unexpected ‘Gideon The Ninth’ was. I loved that the relationships were never simple, that things you thought you knew often turn out to be untrue, and the energy that came from sustained emotional ambiguity. 

Gideon wasn’t the typical snarky. bad-ass, sword-wielding fantasy heroine. She did have snark and some wonderful insults. She was good (very, very, good) with a sword and she’d rather fight than party. She was also young and had never been anywhere or met anyone and she knews she hates Harrow but that Harrow is also the only person who really knows her. She’s fascinated by the people she was meeting. Some she wanted to hit. Some she wanted to protect and some she just wanted to watch as they came out of the pool wearing only a camisole and shorts. She was finding her way but her way always seemed to involve finding herself in situations where she was quite likely to die but which still seemed better than the alternative.

I loved the snark, mostly because it was just a grace note on more subtle character building. I loved that all of the characters were rounded out so that I cared whether people lived or died. I was impressed by the complex rules/science of necromancy, by the vivid swordplay, the animated skeletons, the fight scenes, the betrayals, the bravery and the fact that the underlying plot worked beautifully, albeit in retrospect.

I strongly recommend the audiobook version. If you surrender to Tamsyn Muir’s text and Moira Quirk’s superb narration, this whole book is a rush that will make you laugh and cry, keep you eagerly turning the pages and constantly reassessing what’s going on. Most of all it will burn Gideon into your memory.

‘The Blacktongue Thief’ by Christopher Buehlman (2021)

‘The Blacktongue Thief’‘The Blacktongue Thief’ by Christopher Buelhman – highly recommended is a strange, strange book, more like a bawdy ballad or a prolonged and updated Canterbury tale. I suspect it’s a book where you either go, ‘Wow, this is amazing’ or you go ‘What the hell is this?’ I strongly recommend the audiobook version. Christopher Buehlman gives a remarkable performance. He adds the music to the lyrics of the text. 

‘The Blacktonue Thief’ covers all the traditional magical quest territory but it’s nothing like any other magical quest story I’ve read. 

The narrator is neither hero nor anti-hero. He’s just a guy with debts to pay who is trying to get by without doing anything that will make him hate himself or failing to do something that will make the people he’s indebted to kill him and his family. 

There’s a blind cat. That should be cute, right? Except it turns out to be one of the scariest things in a book full of scary things.

It’s not unusual to imagine a world where Goblins go to war with humans but it is unusual to have such, ugly, alien, disturbing to think about Goblins and then know that they almost succeeded in exterminating humanity. 

It’s not unusual to have sword-wielding magic users on a quest. It is unusual to have magic tattoos that allow them to carry creatures within their bodies until they’re needed. 

The most unusual thing of all is how the tale is told. It’s a troubadours ballad. The kind of thing a wandering minstrel might have performed to crowds to garnish pennies. It’s an Irishman’s tall tale, using exaggeration and humour to tell a sometimes grim truth. On the surface, it’s all smiles and flashy action but deeper down there’s an acknowledgement that the world is broken and no one, especially the little band on the quest, is going to be able to fix it. There’s a lot of humour and a little love and occasional flashes of vivid action.

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