I’ve picked six Best Reads from the forty-four books that I read in the last quarter. They’re all genre reads: three thrillers and three speculative fiction books, and I recommend all of them to you.
Devolution (2020) by Max Brooks
Max Brooks is best known for his zombie novel ‘World War Z’. It’s in my TBR pile but I decided not to start there because his latest book ‘Devolution’ made me go: “How would that work?‘. It’s a novel about Bigfoot. Not the wise, shy, magical, older-brother living in harmony with the forest kind of Big Foot that Harry Dresden hangs out with. Think carnivorous apex predator ape hunting in packs. Add in a migration forced by the eruption of Mount Rainier and then put in their path a colony of rich folks trying to live a tech-enable lifestyle that let’s them live in isolation while having all the comforts of home – as long as the tech doesn’t stop working because of a local volcano – and you have the basis for a massacre.
The ‘Devolution’ of the title is really advice to folks in the colony to get back to reality and : survive, adapt, kill.
I loved the ideas and the storytelling style which combined an intense personal journal with an after-the-fact documentary to produce something that kept me eagerly turning the pages.
Kismet (2022) by Amina Akhtar
‘Kismet’ was one of Amazon’s free ‘First Reads’. I picked it out because I thought it was a well-observed, low-key satire giving an American-born Pakistani woman’s take on being the only brown woman living in Sedona, a town obsessed with mystical energies and wellness but which recognises neither its privilege nor its prejudice and where, despite Rumi quotes on the wall and the ubiquitous use of namaste (usually mispronounced) as a greeting, explaining that you are Muslim and Pakistani and not Hindu and Indian earns you suspicion (Are you one of the bad Muslims?) or confusion (There’s a difference?).
It turned out to be much more than that.
Kismet was a decent thriller that ticked all the boxes for a serial killer story: highish body count, gruesome and varied ways of killing, tension around who the next victim will be and tantalising hints at who the killer is. The pacing worked and the ending was a doozy.
It was also an amusing satire: a witty fun read, that held that holy trinity of unconscious entitlement, cultural insulation and racism up to the light and makes fun of it without diminishing its inherent nastiness or its violent consequences.
Best of all though, Kismet is an unashamedly gothic book. It thinks big, dark, bold thoughts and dares you to keep up.
The Murder Rule (2022) by Dervla McTiernan
It grabbed me from the first page and never let go. It’s filled with unreliable narrators, so my perception of what was going on kept changing, an effect amplified by the way in which the plot used my own confirmation bias to blindside me.
I enjoyed the two timeline storytelling style and I found the characters to be relatable and believable.
The Salvage Crew (2020) by Yudhanjaya Wijertane
‘The Salvage Crew’ is hard science fiction at its best. Good science. Scary, life-threatening challenges faced by people who are not the omnicompetent heroes Science Fiction used to love but rather societies discards, human salvage desperate enough to take a dangerous mission. Lots of action but also lots of reflection which together build a conceptual landscape and a language that allow me / require me to consider what it means to be human and what it might mean to have once been human and now be something… different.
It’s always a joy to find a fresh voice in Science Fiction. Someone not only with something to say but with a different way of saying it. Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is a perfect example of this. He’s a Sri Lankan Science Fiction writer who is also a senior researcher in Big Data. He’s a man used to thinking deeply about the interactions between people, technology and data both individually and at scale and he brings a post-colonial mindset. Best of all, he writes people I can believe in, even when they’re doing unbelievable things, and even when they’re not really people anymore.
I will be consuming his entire back catalogue.
Now a confession. I didn’t pick up ‘The Salvage Crew’ because it was written by a rising star in South East Asian Science Fiction who also knows a lot about AI. I’d never heard of Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. I picked up the book because it was narrated by Nathan Fillion and I wanted to hear him tell me a story. He was an excellent choice. Not just because, as I expected, he’s a talented narrator, but because he helped the early part of the book feel more familiar. He made the AI into a reassuring presence just because he’s Nathan Fillion. But he also carried me beyond that familiarity, through all the strangeness and unpleasantness and death, to something very different. I recommend the audiobook to you
Unconquerable Sun (2020) by Kate Elliott
‘Unconquerable Sun’ is everything a space opera should be. It has the Military SF tropes, the imperial politics and intrigue, the millennia-long history of constant conflict between human societies living on multiple worlds connected by technology no one really understands left behind by a race no one has ever seen, the diverse societies that draw heavily on Asian and European cultures, the space and weapons hardware well in advance of our own and an intricate and slow-reveal plot, punctuated with good action scenes.
Yet what makes ‘The Unconquerable Sun’ fly is that the story is told through the eyes of three strong young women, each of whom is at the start of a long path towards their chosen goals – Ruler, Engineer, Pilot and none of whom have yet understood the big picture that will shape their lives.
This is a fairly long book (528 pages / 17 hours 43 minutes) yet it flew by as I lost myself to the story. I admired the skill with which Kate Elliott kept up the forward momentum of the story while deepening my interest in the characters, keeping me occupied with life-threatening action and still giving me time to wonder about the unanswered questions like how do the interstellar gates really work and why did some of them stop working and who are The Riders and why are the Banner Soldiers engineered so differently and …
‘Unconquerable Sun’ was a wild ride that laid the foundations for a strong series and left me hungry leaving for the next book, ‘Furious Heaven’ (which comes out in 2023).
Sweetpea (2017) by C. J. Skuse
‘Sweetpea’ is a book that’s brave enough to be truly dark without being even slightly exploitative. The story, told in the first person, feels brutally, invasively honest. It’s an unedited, unashamed, raw feed from a woman who is unhappy, lonely angry and who needs to sate her desire to kill on a regular basis.
The main character, Rhiannon, is not a Hannibal Lector, taking decadent delight in his own cleverness at killing or a Dexter Morgan, following a moral code to constrain his ‘dark passenger’. She’s broken. She knows she’s broken. She knows it’s not her fault and she lives with it. Which means she does her best to fake being normal and to tamp down her anger and she only kills a tiny fraction of the people that she puts on her daily kill list.
I initially saw Rhiannon as a fellow introvert suffering from having to live in an extrovert’s world and pretend to like it. I enjoyed some of her caustic descriptions of her frustrations and what she’d like to do to the people who cause them.
By the time I finally understood the reality of what Rhiannon does and how it makes her feel, I felt somehow complicit with her choices. I couldn’t muster any moral outrage. Nor could I really cheer in support of her actions. I knew her better than I would ever have wanted to and I couldn’t hate her. I knew she was damaged. I knew how the damage had happened and when. I knew that she could never be normal and that she was at least trying to show some restraint.
‘Sweetpea’ was sometimes an uncomfortable read but it was always a compelling one. I’ll be back for the rest of the series.