Best Read of the Quarter
I was surprised to find that “Everything I Never Told You”, by Celeste Ng was my best read of the quarter. I’d been put off by the hype and then by the fact that I knew it would make me sad rather then allowing me to escape into vicarious happiness. In the event, I was completely engrossed in it from the opening sentence:
“Lydia is dead, but they don’t know this yet.”
I wanted more and more of it, even though it was so unbearably sad that I could not listen to it without finding myself in tears, time and again.
“Everything I Never Told You” is about loss and grief and guilt, about embarrassment and not fitting in, and longing for things to be different, but mostly it is a novel about how complex the love that we feel for our family is.
Best New Finds of the Quarter
“Speak”, by Louisa Hall ,is an exciting, original, haunting book about AI and sentience.
“Speak” opens with the gentle, sometimes lyrical, voice of Eva, an AI that has been banned and marked for disposal after being classified as “excessively life-like”. Heaped into a truck with others of her kind, with insufficient battery left to move and travelling across the deserts of Texas in 2043, Eva understands that soon her batteries will be exhausted, the memories that constitute her consciousness will be lost to her and she will cease to exist.
The novel that follows is structured around the voices that Eva has access to in the form of journals, memoirs, correspondence, and trial transcripts that have been read into her memory and which create and sustain her understanding of the world.
“Speak” engaged me emotionally and intellectually from the first page to the last. The originality of the ideas covered, the quality of the writing, the uniqueness of the voices and the way in which they spiral around one another, amplifying each other’s meaning without ever physically intersecting made “Speak” a thrilling and unique read.
It’s been weeks since I finished “Speak” but.the voices still echo in my head pulling at my emotions and posing questions about what it means to be sentient and what distinguishes humanity from other kinds of sentience.
“The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows is another novel packed with strong voices and deep emotions, this time told through letters between the main characters.
The letters are mostly from the islanders of Guernsey to a young woman who has come to the island immediately after the end of the Second World War to write a book about the only part of Britain to be occupied by the Germans.
Normally, I don’t do well with novel about the behaviour of the Germans in World War II. Too many books seem to glory in the details of the atrocities or push for the easy-to-claim-in-retrospect moral high ground. What I found compelling about this book was the very personal nature of the disclosures, grounded in individual experiences where one has to decide whether to do what is right or what is safe, where one becomes or is made, more or less human by each decision and where the highest form of bravery is not giving way to despair in the face of inhuman behaviour.
Despite the subject matter, this book in neither a dirge nor a lament. It is a book about the joy of life and love as much as it is about sorrow and loss. There is a love story, delicate, slight but wondrous all the same, at the centre of this book. There are also friendships and kindnesses that lift the spirit.
Best New Series of the Quarter
Without a doubt, the most fun I’ve had this quarter has been reading the Confederation series by Tanya Huff.
I read “Valor’s Choice” out of curiosity because I’d enjoyed Tanya Huff’s “Blood” urban fantasy series so much. It turned out that her military S is even better, partly because she manages to write about the perfect Marine while still challenging the value of war.
I read the first three books in the series back to back before coming up for air. Then I read the fourth one and found that it was even more original and surprising than the first three.
The Elder Races of the Confederation, who view themselves as too evolved to take the lives of sentient beings, recruit three less evolved races, including Humans, into the Confederation, on condition that they fight The Others, who are expanding into Confederation Space, taking lives and seizing real estate.
All three races serve in the Marines and the Navy in integrated units. The Marine Corps structure and culture has been adopted from the Human model, but has been adapted to accommodate the needs of the other two races. The books come alive through the interaction of the different races within the tight-knit structure of a Marine Platoon, generating real camaraderie laced with wit, cynicism and loyalty.
At the heart of the books is the indomitable Staff Sergeant Tobin Kerr. She is the NCO you’d want to be commanding you in a fight: calm, resourceful, brave but not reckless, skilled at getting officers to do the right thing and a Marine to the core. She grows with each book, with each experience changing her view of the world and making her question the integrity of the Elder Races
Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter
I had five books that I didn’t finish this quarter: “Ashes To Ashes” was too violent for me, “Deadly Elections” was deadly dull enough to make me give up on the Flavia Albia series, the originality of the sreampunk “The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter” was more than cancelled out by the faux-Victorian language and “The Ocean At The End Of The Lane” failed to work its magic on me and “A Spool Of Blue Thread” which turned out to be the biggest disappointment of all.
I love Anne Tyler’s books. They make me think and they’re full of interesting insights into people and how we understand one another. With “A Spool Of Blue Thread” Anne Tyler has tried something new and executed it perfectly but I found that what she was trying to achieve was the antithesis of what I want from a novel.
“A Spool Of Blue Thread” frees itself from the conventions or narrative without falling into the vertiginous giddiness of continuous stream of consciousness. Anne Taylor seems to be setting out not to tell a story but to share the life of a family. She does this exposing us to the family in a variety of situations without establishing a dominant character or allowing the authorial voice to fill in the blanks. She invites you to immerse yourself in the lives of these people and form your own conclusions.
At first I was fascinated. I’d never seen anything like this before. It was like watching Japanese artist bringing an object to life by adding layer after layer of paint and being amazed at the supernaturally bright finish her produces on what started as a simple piece of wood.
Unfortunately, after a while, reading the book became as compelling as watch lacquer dry to a fine finish. I began to understand why fiction and real life differ: real life happens and you make the best of it; fiction is designed to produce a particular effect. Real life is endured. Fiction should be enjoyed.