I’ve picked six Best Reads from the fifty books that I’ve read in the last quarter. Two are contemporary novels, two are alternative histories and two are speculative fiction. Between them, they offer murders, social commentary, steampunk in Seattle, GrimDark sword, sorcery and gangsters, a global digital meltdown and a zombie apocalypse. I hope you’ll find at least one book among them that calls to you.
How To Kill Men And Get Away With It (2022) by Katy Brent
‘How To Kill Men And Get Away With It’, constantly surprised me. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that the book is Kitty Collins, the character who drives this dark and violent plot. Kitty is a twenty-something, vegetarian heiress to a fortune made from meat, who chooses to support herself through her earnings as an Instagram Influencer. But Kitty is not the person who her hoard of Instagram followers think she is. She’s a killer who uses Tinder to hunt men whom she believes deserve to die and based on what we see of those men, it’s often hard to disagree with her. Kitty is too complicated to be dismissed with a ‘Psychopath – move on‘ label and too broken to be a cool woman engaged in a guerilla war against the patriarchy. Finding out why she kills and what killing does to her is the at the core of the book.
I strongly recommended ‘How To Kill Men And Get Away With It”, It’s an engaging, exciting, thought-provoking read, studded with moments of wit and moments that are deeply sad and disturbing.
The Fell (2021) by Sarah Moss
Sarah Moss’ writing is powerful and relatable. It touches on the big themes that shape our lives and determine our happiness without turning those themes into sterile, debating chamber artefacts. She starts with a situation that most of us are familiar with, populates it with a diverse collection of credible people whose lives touch one another, directly or indirectly through that situation and then takes us inside the private thoughts and emotions that those people have as the events unfold. The result is a multi-faceted picture not just of the situation but of what it means to different people.
In ‘The Fell’ she uses a simple event, a woman going for a walk on the fell during Lockdown, suffering an injury, becoming benighted and being searched for by the local Mountain Rescue team. We see these events from the point of view of the woman who goes for a walk, even though it’s against rules that she sees the need for because she cannot bear to be confined to her house any longer; her teenage son who is dealing with isolation and being confined with his mother; an older neighbour who is chaffing at being declared ‘Vulnerable’ and effectively being placed under house arrest when she wants to be with her family and to stay in contact with her neighbours; and a member of the search and rescue team who is trying to find a balance between his passion for being part of that team and his commitment to his young wife and their new child.
As she brings these people together, Sarah Moss invites us to think about what Lockdown meant to all of us. How it changed our lives, not just temporarily but permanently. How it challenged our understanding of freedom and community and choice. How it isolated us and forced us to confront our weaknesses and frustrations. How hope and compassion are two of our key survival skills.
Aurora (2022) by David Koepp
I had a lot of fun with ‘Aurora’. It delivered as a thriller without me having to work at suspending my disbelief. It was populated with people who felt real and it invited me to consider the hopes and fears that drive us when we are powerless in the face of a major change.
The central premise of the book is a scarily credible idea: a solar flare causing a geomagnetic storm on the scale of the Carrington Event, that blows out the he electrical power grid globally, causing damage that would take months or perhaps years to repair.
The book follows a small group of people, connected in complicated ways that are not immediately apparent, and looks at how they react to the world as they have known it, going away and maybe never coming back. Some of these people are quite hard to like but they’re very easy to believe in.
Part of the power of the book comes from David Koepp’s ability to climb inside the heads of these people and demonstrate how they think. In addition to the insight into the individuals, Koepp uses their reactions to demonstrate the pros and cons of different approaches to disaster: prep and plan so that you can wait out the disaster with minimum disruption of your personal comfort, or decline to plan, adjust to the new situation and find people to collaborate with to make the best of things, or continue to scavenge on the fringes of society and take what you can.
Karen Memory (2015) by Elizabeth Bear
‘Karen Memory’ is a first-class Steampunk novel, set in an alternative Seattle in the late Nineteenth Century. For me, what set the novel apart was the main character, Karen Memery. She is a unique and inspired creation. When was the last time you got to see a steampunk world through the eyes of a teenage orphan who is making her living as a sex worker, sees the men and women around her clearly and has a plan to move out of sexwork before she gets too old for it? Now imagine that the voice sharing that world with you through a first-person account is, fierce, frank, smart and engaging. Add in a Steampunk version of Seattle in the still-wild-on-the-Pacific-Northwest-coast, gold rush era, nineteenth-century America and a plot involving international human trafficking, mind-bending weapons and organised crime with political ambitions and murderous methods and you have a book that’s hard to put down.
Elizabeth Bear’s writing also makes ‘Karen Memory’ a pleasure to read. The world-building is fully integrated into the story – no hint of infodumping. There’s enough action to keep everything moving, enough uncertainty to keep me guessing and enough tension to make it all worthwhile. Best of all, there is Karen Memery’s first-hand account which is easy to listen to and which manages to let the reader make connections that the teenage Karen has yet to make without being any less engaged with her. I liked Karen Memery. She seemed real to me although she’s not like anyone I’ve ever met. She didn’t stretch my belief and yet I have no idea what she’d do next, except that it would be brave and smart and probably surprising.
Priest Of Bones (2018) by Peter McLean
‘Priest Of Bones’ is a GrimDark tale that hooked me out of my comfort zone with this quote:
“Sixty-five thousand battle-shocked, trained killers came home to no jobs, no food and the plague. What did Her Majesty think was going to happen?’
I wanted to meet the man who asked that question and I wanted to hear his answer.
His name is Tomas Piety and he’s a wonderful creation. Seeing the world through Tomas Piety’s eyes is a visceral experience. He’s a chilling mix of insight, dispassion, intelligence and will. He’s a complicated man with simple goals – to take back what used to be his and to keep it. He’s a dominant man who enforces his dominance as much by the strength of his will as by the speed of his steel. He’s a realist who knows when to push and when to compromise and how to look strong and inspire loyalty while he’s doing it.
Tomas Piety’s world is grim and violent and damaged and very easy to imagine. Tomas Piety is a sort of Seventeenth-century gangster. He and his brother led a group called The Pious Men, a gang that ran the pubs, brothels, gambling houses and protection rackets for a section of the city. I quickly became immersed in Tomas Piety’s struggle to re-establish his demesne and settled down for a grim and graphic story of gang warfare, Then Peter McLean added some elements that made the situation more complicated and ratcheted the plot up from an absorbing but predictable gang turf war into something more strategic and with many more possibilities.
Rot & Ruin (2010) by Jonathan Maberry
‘Rot & Ruin’ was a wonderful surprise: deeply satisfying and completely unexpected. It’s the story of the people who survived the zombie apocalypse and especially those, now in their teens, who grew up after it and who don’t remember the world that everyone else mourns the loss of.
Benny, the teenage boy who is the focus of the story, has only the vaguest memories of ‘First Night’, the term everyone uses to refer to the first days after the dead everywhere spontaneously began to rise. His older brother, Tom, remembers life before First Night and is old enough to have had to take tough decisions during and after First Night. Benny struggles to understand his brother’s behaviour and attitude, partly because Benny is so young and inexperienced, partly because Tom never talks about First Night and partly because Tom seems to be the odd one out amongst the Zombie Bounty Hunters that Benny admires.
One of the things I enjoyed about ‘Rot & Ruin’ was how it dealt with this experience-gulf between the generations. Without ever feeling overtly didactic, it got me to think through how an experience like First Night would affect the survivors. How, once the adrenalin had subsided, the immediate danger had passed and life had to continue, it would shape their decisions for the future. How they would yearn for order and structure and safety. How they’d want to create a new normal. How they’d mythologise the big picture of the past as they mourn for what they’ve lost but how they would remain silent about the things they did to survive in the days and months after the world changed. How they would try to convince themselves that they are safe by pretending that they are no longer afraid and how that pretence would lead to all of their decisions being driven by fear rather than hope.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about ‘Rot & Ruin’ was how it made me think about zombies. Jonathan Maberry reminded me that all those zombies out there were once people. He also showed what happens to the humanity of Bounty Hunters who spend their lives in the lawless Rot & Ruin making their living by bringing back the dismembered corpses of zombies. Eventually, he convinced me that men could be more monstrous than zombies and that, bizarre as it may seem, one measure of a person’s humanity is the compassion they show for those who were once people and are now zombies.