Although December is only sixteen days old, I decided that now is the best chance my work schedule is going to give me to do this, so I’m going to look back over the nineteen books that I’ve read since the beginning of October.
I was delighted finally to get my hands on the most recent “Rivers of London” book, “The Hanging Tree”. This series just keeps getting better. Now I’m waiting for the next one. I got the second book in Faith Hunter’s new “Soulwood” series “Curse On The Land”, which, although it wasn’t quite as high impact as the first book, was still a good read. I read the first two books in my virtual journey across the USA: “The Lightkeepers” set in the Farallon Islands off the coast of California and “Bad Country”, set in Arizona.
Best Read of the Quarter
“The Unseen World” by Liz Moore, is a book that it is easier to fall in love with than to explain. I was attracted to so many things in the content of the book and the way that it was written that it’s hard to get beyond saying: “This is great. Go read it.”
This is a book of deep emotions, subtly and non-judgmentally evoked. It is human to the core. This humanity is shown in two ways: by spinning the small things that make up our day to day lives, our habits of speech, our family rituals, the jokes we share, the social awkwardness we cause, the kindnesses we show and the cruelties we are capable of, into a web of empathy that is almost overwhelming and by contrasting our humanity with the structured, logical, semantically precise world of artificial intelligence.
The unseen world of the title can be read either as the confluence between math-driven machine learning and natural language programing which creates patterned responses to the world that seemed to me to be the equivalent of human coping mechanisms for dealing with the unknown, or as the complex network of loyalties and betrayals, attraction and rejection, passion and frustration, love and failure that make up most people’s emotional landscape.
Perhaps it’s Moore’s ability to enable me to see both of these “unseens” and to care about them without having to choose between them that makes it so hard for me to get this book out of my head.
Best New Finds of the Quarter
“Conclave” by Robert Harris was a wonderful surprise. I think it’s his best book so far.
On the face of it, he’s picked a not very exciting focus for his book, a Conclave of 118 Cardinal Electors, sequestered in the Sistine Chapel until the Holy Spirit moves at least two thirds of to select one of their number to be Pope. How much of interest can happen with a bunch of elderly clergy locked away in a church?
Yet Robert Harris makes the tale compelling by producing an empathic immersion into the closed world of the College of Cardinals, that manages to be compassionate, truthful and have just enough tension in it to keep you turning the pages while still having the people, rather than the plot, at the heart of the novel.
The story is told through the eyes of Cardinal Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals and therefore responsible for managing the Conclave as well as voting in it.
Lomeli is a wonderful creation: a man who has served the Church mainly in ambassadorial roles as a Papal Nuncio and as Secretary of State, he is troubled by doubt and has recently found it difficult to pray. In his seventies, this Prince of the Church, shows remarkable humility. His ambition is simply to run the Conclave in as neutral a way as possible so that God can guide him and his brother Cardinals to make the right decision. When that turns out not to be possible, Lomeli’s guide seems always to be to do his duty to God. Of course, he would be greatly helped in this if God could be a little more directive about what his will is.
I was a Catholic by birth and education, before taking a leap of faith and becoming an atheist, so I was intrigued to see how Robert Harris would treat the Church. I was pleased that he avoided both whitewash and demonisation. Instead, he presents men of many different backgrounds, personalities and beliefs, who are passionately trying to serve, even if some of them conflate service and ambition.
What I found most affecting and most realistic, was the extent to which these men, especially the much troubled Lomeli, found their way through the moral and political maze through prayer. I never mastered prayer but I’ve known people for whom it is a daily necessity on a par with food and water. I’d like to believe that many of those leading the Church feel the same need.
When I read “Revelation Space” last year, I loved the ideas but couldn’t engage with the characters. Alastair Reynolds had been recommended to me by people who know a good writer when they read one, so I persisted and downloaded the audiobook version of “Blue Remembered Earth”
For me, the best thing about “Blue Remembered Earth” was the narration by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. His energy and his mastery of all kinds of interesting accents, made this lengthy book a stimulating, if leisurely, quest rather than a tediously long journey.
Set a couple of centuries in the future, after the great re-settlements caused by global warming, “Blue Remembered Earth” tells the story of a brother and sister in a powerful Tanzanian family, who, on the death of their grandmother, are sent separately to follow a trail of clues out into space to uncover the secrets of the woman who founded their family’s wealth.
The quest structure of the novel provides the string on which the pearls of the various deeply imagined environments, cultures and personalities are strung. Technology is almost a character in this book in its own right. Everything from the augmentations that enable (enforce sometimes seems a more appropriate word) people constantly to be in communication with one another through to exactly how the interplanetary space craft work, is thought-through and woven skillfully into the tale.
Ultimately, the journey in this long, long, book is much more important than the destination. The puzzle is more interesting than its solution. The changes wrought on the people as they work through the quest maze are more important than the knowledge the acquire.
Best New Series of the Quarter
This quarter I read all three books in Tanya Huff’s Enchanted Emporium series: “The Enchanted Emporium”, “The Wild Ways” and “The Future Falls”. This Urban Fantasy series, set mainly in Calgary, centres around the Gale women and their, more than a little terrifying, powers.
The books are told with wit wrapped in lots of banter and seasoned with pop culture references but they are darker than they seem.
At first I thought of the Gales as a particularly large, rambunctious family of witches, with a tendency towards charming but harmless eccentricity. It took me a while to realise that the Gales are not really human, nor are they really individuals in the way I’m used to thinking about it. They reminded me an ancient forest, each tree proud and strong but connected by roots and tendrils that mean that they can best be understood as a collective entity.
The Gale women are enormously powerful. The Gale women outnumber the Gale men. The Gale women manipulate the breeding lines to keep the family strong. The Gale women become more dangerous and more eccentric as they become Aunties.
The first book deals with a disappearing Auntie and an emerging threat to Calgary. The second book is about strange goings on at folk festivals in Canada’s Celtic Coast and the final book is about, well, the possible destruction of the planet by a very large rock.
The three books could be read independently but they also form a satisfying story arc. I was glad that all three had already been published so that I could consume them almost one after another.
Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter
“Lily And The Octopus” was the book I was most out of sympathy with this quarter.I made it through about an hour of the audiobook and decided life was too short.
The book was pitched as:
This is a story about that special someone: the one you trust, the one you can’t live without.
For Ted Flask, that someone special is his aging companion Lily, who happens to be a dog.
It had a weird but memorable title, good reviews, an arty cover and it had a dog in it. What was not to like?
Well, actually, the main character, Ted Flask..
The thing is, if you’re going to read a 300+ page book about a lonely middle-aged man watching his much-loved, twelve year old, dachshund die, it’s not enough to feel sorry for the dog, you have to like the man. I found Ted Flask annoying. He’s insecure, nervous, addicted to therapy from mediocre therapists and introspective almost to the point of narcissism. He’s so highly-strung, he’s exhausting to spend time with. He loves his dog; that’s touching but it doesn’t make him any easy to be with and anyway, who doesn’t love a dog they’ve spent twelve years living with every day?
Flask’s self-defensive attempts at humour are thin and sometimes painful attempts at distraction.
Then, there’s the whole octopus metaphor. I can see it was meant to be quirky and original and perhaps even, quietly brave but, to me, it came across as too contrived and too self-serving. The dog has cancer. Spit it out. Deal with it. Don’t turn it into an extended metaphor for all that is ugly and unacceptable in life.
The book is well written and very well narrated but I was fundamentally out of sympathy with it.