I’ve selected ten of the 116 genre books that I read this year as “Best Reads”. In picking these ten, I’m aware I’ve skipped over some favourite series that have brought me a lot of pleasure this year and some stand out individual books but these are the ones that stick in my memory as exemplars of how good a genre read can be.
“Binti” is an example of how perfectly suited to Science Fiction the novella format is. No wonder it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella.
In “Binti” Nnedi Okorafor gives us a first-person account from a sixteen-year-old math genius who is the first of her people to leave her village and take up a place in the galaxy’s leading university. On the way there, bad things happen that place her at the centre of a deadly conflict of cultures that she must find a way of resolving if she is to survive.
The world-building is original and fascinating and done with such skill that, even in something of novella length, it is unobtrusive because our focus is on Binti herself: her pride in her heritage, her love for her family, her need to do math at the highest level, her struggle to leave home, her grief for what is taken from her, her fear of her own imminent death and her courage in choosing a way forward. It is wonderful, compelling stuff.
Along the way, I came to understand that I had never thought of what it is like to be labelled “tribal”, to be proud of that tribe, to know clearly that your tribe is part of you and to take comfort in that but to know also that your mind is hungry for more and different. It helped me understand how Euro-centric my thinking is. Not surprising perhaps, they are my tribe after all.
“A Delicate Truth” pleased me because the world it describes is frighteningly plausible without ever becoming melodramatic and because the cadence of Le Carré’s prose and his nuanced use of language, especially in dialogue, call to something in me in the same way that the best music does.
In some ways, this is not a very dramatic tale but it is a disturbing one.
It describes the kind of England the odious Boris Johnson and the surprisingly dangerous Jacob Rees-Mogg want to drag us all back into so that they can live the Eton dream while the rest of us touch our forelocks and hope to keep our jobs.
It’s an England where the under-funded State is preyed upon by billion dollar Private Military Corporations that are contracted to kidnap and kill with an impunity secured by anti-terror legislation that has eroded public accountability to the point of non-existence.
I admired that Le Carré described the people of this world with great precision and insight without ever once straying into empathy. I also liked that he takes his time. He uses complex sentences. He moves the reader effortlessly backwards and forwards along the timeline and he perfectly evokes a sense of place, whether it is a Cornish Fair, a Private Club or the corridors and conference rooms of the FCO.
“American War” has stuck in my memory, even though there are parts of it I’d like to forget. It’s a grim book but an honest one. It is heartbreaking without being in the least bit exploitative.
Omar El Akkad has done something exceptional in creating. Sara T Chestnut – who calls herself Sarat. Sarat is a bright, curious young girl from Louisianna who is broken and finally destroyed by a war she had no part in making and a need for revenge that she cannot let go of.
Sarat is neither hero nor saint. She is strong, brave, bright and fierce. She has also been fundamentally ruined by the war she has lived through. What she does is literally atrocious. Why she does it is completely understandable.
It is this ability to help me understand Sarat without turning her into an object or either worship or contempt, that makes “American War” a great novel.
“Bearskin” is a rare find: a literary thriller that is as lyrical as it is muscular.
Two things caught and kept my attention throughout this book: the development of Rice Moore, the man at the heart of the story and the sometimes total immersion into the ancient Appalachian forest. Either one would have been reason enough to read this book. Together they became compelling.
Rice Moore is a great creation. Recent acts of extreme violence against him and by him have left him emotionally scarred and subject to fugues states and hallucinations. A solitary man who no longer entirely trusts himself to play well with others, he seeks isolation, partly to hide from his enemies and partly to avoid people. Alone in the forest, feeling its pulse next to his own, his inability to let go of his territoriality or his instinct for violence, repeatedly draws him into conflict with the people around him.
Yet this isn’t a one-man-triumphs-against-the-world sort of story. Moore is losing his mind. His fugue states, his obsession with protecting the black bears on the estate he is warden of and his personal ghosts, lead him down a path where he literally puts on another skin and enters a different kind of consciousness. James McLaughlin’s ability to help me experience this altering of states as something real and raw was deeply impressive.
“Bellwether”is the second example of an excellent SF novella on this list. Written in 1997, it’s primarily a satire. It was a re-read for me, after a gap of twenty years, and this time around, I found that, while the ideas still stand up, what impressed me most was the gentle, wise wit that powers this book on how science works. It was a delightful, easy, clever read that made me smile and sometimes laugh out loud.
The book itself is a kind of science fairytale, complete with a Cinderella scientist, a not so handsome and distinctly fashion-challenged Prince and a fairy godmother. Our heroine’s research into the causes of fads and her knowledge of the history of scientific breakthroughs delivers a fascinating mix of humour and education.
Despite being twenty-one years old, this book feels fresh and current. If you’re in the mood for a light, witty, well-paced, literate fairytale with real scientists (and a lot of sheep) at its heart, this is the book for you.
In “Joyland”, Stephen King take us on a total immersion ride in a time long past, in a youth long-lost and in a Carnie culture now extinct. He sells the possibility of abilities beyond the normal and most of all he sells the possibility that ordinary young people can do things that make the world better.
The story is told from what the now-sixty-year-old Devin Jones remembers of the summer, forty years earlier, that changed the life of his younger self.
This looking back changes the nature of the telling. It gives us the views and experiences of Devin then and Devin now. It gifts us with both intimacy and distance. This allows Deivn to make pronouncements like
“When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.”
and still sound credible.
King brings the “Carnie” world, its language, rituals, roles and rules to life through the eyes of a young man hungry for something to become part of.
The plot is driven partly by a murder mystery, with Devin trying to discover who killed the pretty girl who is now thought to haunt the House of Horror ride and by a strong sense of foreboding imparted by a the predictions of Carnie fortune teller,’ who may actually have flashes of The Sight, for people Devin needs to look out for.
King avoids clichéed romance and tacky nostalgia by being deeply truthful. He also fits every emotional button available with merciless skill, leaving his readers feeling they too have been for a hell of a carnie ride.
“Lethal White” makes the emotions, decisions and misunderstandings of the Cormoran and Robin painfully and credibly clear, avoids simple answers to complex problems and sets the whole thing against a nuanced and slightly acerbic understanding of the dynamics of class and power in England.
Every scene, every interaction, is so well-observed, so nuanced that I was left wondering what it must feel like to see the world so clearly and to be able to display its essence at will. I doubt it’s a comfortable thing.
This is a long book (the audiobook takes more than twenty-two hours to listen to) but it never dragged once. The pace is perfect.
I’ve read through the Slough House books this year and I think that “London Rules” is the best in the series so far.
“London Rules” is an excellent spy novel and a good action-packed thriller but it is also a mirror to our current times and an invitation to recognise that self-delusion, confidence without ability and the pursuit of personal power at the expense of personal integrity are a plague on our society.
It starts in an unconventional way with a violent prologue that reminded me of one of those young woman / old woman optical illusion drawings. I saw the scene perfectly in my head, tragic but familiar, up until the last paragraph, when everything changed and yet everything remained the same. This way of leading me to see the familiar differently and surprise me while he does it, it what makes Mick Herron’s Slough House books so appealing.
One of the things I enjoy about the Slough House books is how fearlessly, sometimes even viciously, they comment on the current British political culture. The most brutal and most nuanced assaults are made by Jackson Lamb and so might be seen as part of his irascible persona (“There’s a Donal Trump Junior?”, Lamb said, “And just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse.”) but the disdain for the people who made the insanity of Brexit and Trump possible is shared by most of the characters in the book except for the shamelessly self-serving Pols themselves.
The plot is clever and is rolled out with such skill that events continue both to make sense and to surprise. The tension is high right up to the final page. There is intrigue and violence and betrayal and that’s just between people on the same side. The terrorist threat here is sadly credible and disturbingly plausible.
“Terminal Alliance” was my (rather late in the day) introduction to the talented Jim C Hines who is one of the wittiest and most original writers I’ve encountered.
“Terminal Alliance” is a funny, fast-paced, witty and original novel and also has a clever and quite serious plot.
The story takes place in a universe where most humans have been turned feral by a zombie plague from which 10,000 or so have been rescued by an alien race who now use them as a military force. The post-plague humans are hard to kill, aggressive and loyal. For the aliens, it’s a great deal.
The janitors of the title are humans who keep the warship clean and plumbing functioning, although their leader, nicknamed mops, is occasionally consulted by the humans in battle command because she has good strategic insights and keeps a cool head.
When the warship gets caught in a trap that kills the alien officers and turns most of the humans feral again, it’s left to Mops and her crew to find out what happened and save the universe, or at least humanity.
The pace is fast. The humour is irresistible. Yet this is not a shallow book. The universe-building is robust and complex. The characters, including the alien characters, are believable and engaging. The plot stands up against more mainstream SF and contains a big, skillfully revealed, secret. Best of all, Mops turns out to be a giant amongst humans: a natural leader, a shrewd tactician, an insatiable reader (Jane Austin’s and Mary Shelley’s works have survived the Holocaust), quietly brave and always witty.
“The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd” is the best Agatha Christie book and one of the best crime books I’ve read.
If she had written no other book, I believe “The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd” would have secured her place as a gifted writer with a stunningly original mind and a deep understanding of the banality of evil.
The writing is assured and confident. The murder mystery is a peculiar and ingenious variant of a locked room mystery with a wide variety of possible villains and some surprising plot twists.
For most of the book, I was entertained by the story and impressed by the craft that went into setting up a series of surprising revelations and the gradual but inexorable netting of all the red herrings swimming through the plot.
Following convention faithfully, we moved on to the Great Reveal and I settled down to discover all the clues I’d missed that would lead me, through the application of method and the little grey cells, to the name of the killer.
The reveal Agatha Christie gave me was a surprise on every level. It transformed my understanding of the novel I had just read, not only in terms of who committed the dastardly deed but in terms of Christie’s whole intent with the book.
What I had taken for an accomplished but conventional amateur sleuth locked-room murder mystery was something quite different and much more subversive. It managed, while respecting, and even excelling at using, the cosy conventions of the genre, to deliver something much darker and much more surprising.