I’m not quite sure exactly how many books I read last year – but it’s around 130 as I tend to average between 2 & 3 books a week. I thought I’d just round up the ones I enjoyed the most and share them with you as I believe that they are all enjoyable and worthwhile reads with something original to say. Needless to say, many are science fiction and fantasy, but there are a few others that crept in, as well.
Cryoburn – Lois McMaster Bujold
If Miles Vorkosigan novels used to tick all your boxes, then don’t worry. Cryoburn still has plenty of the old magic. I’ve always enjoyed Bujold’s writing, so have read both her Chalion and The Sharing Knife series with huge enjoyment, appreciating her deft characterisation, intriguing worlds and the Bujold ability to evolve realistic human difficulties and tensions out of the surrounding circumstances. Nobody does it better…
However, something magical happens to her writing when Miles leaps into the fray. Bujold’s prose sizzles with extra three-dimensional depth and agility as she plunges her hero into yet another adventure.
Revelation – C.J. Sansom
Like your whodunit with a twist of history? Well, look no further than one of our local authors, Chris Sansom. His sleuth of choice is Matthew Shardlake, who should have some sort of medal as the unlikeliest P.I. in the history of the genre. Master Shardlake is a hunchback, who has battled against his disability to become a lawyer – which is a greater achievement than you might think, considering that Sansom’s detective series is set in King Henry VIII’s turbulent reign. I have just finished reading the fourth book in the series, Revelation, and in my opinion it’s right up there with Dark Fire, my favourite.
Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks – Christopher Brookmyre
I came across this gem in the library one rainy day in November and it brightened my life. Do you believe in ghosts? Do we really live on in some conscious form after we die, capable of communicating with the world of the living?
The investigative journalist, Jack Parlabane, who sort of solves this crime, has appeared in four previous Brookmyre novels. He leaps off the page with all the force of Robbie Coltrayne’s Cracker – and with as many opinions, which he doesn’t shy away from sharing with the rest of us. So, in addition to enjoying a really well-crafted thriller with a number of BIG surprises that I didn’t see coming, I was also treated to a series of intelligent discussions on the nature of belief, its impact on society and how it can be used to exploit victims when they are extremely vulnerable.
Sum: Tales from the Afterlives – David Eagleman
This little book was published in 2009 and very quickly garnered a fistful of rave reviews, emphasising its originality, charm and inventive. The word ‘genius’ has even been slung around… While I wouldn’t go quite that far, I’ll happily endorse anyone claiming it is unlike anything else you’ve ever come across. As for originality – you start really examining some of the forty ideas and you’ll find you are being pushed into brain-bulging places. Meat and drink for those of us who like our ideas and fiction on the weirder side.
As with any anthology, some of the stories work better than others. Sum is one of the better ones – but it is by no means my favourite. A word of caution, though. It might be a very small book and you could easily whizz through it in one sitting. Don’t. My advice is never to read more than two of these little stories at a time because to do so is to risk becoming inured to the sheer amazing leaps of imagination Eagleman is asking you to take.
The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways our Intuition Deceives Us – Christopher Chabris & Daniel Simons
The authors, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, won the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology for Gorillas in Our Midst, a groundbreaking and world-famous experiment where they asked volunteers to watch a 60 second film of students playing basketball and told them to count the number of passes made. About halfway through, a woman dressed in a gorilla outfit strolled to the centre of the screen, beat her chest at the camera and then walked away. Half the volunteers missed seeing the gorilla…
Yep. It made my jaw drop, too. Unless you’ve already heard of the experiment, of course. Many people have, by all accounts. But before you shrug your shoulders and dismiss it as yet another oddball piece of human behaviour that doesn’t really apply to everyday life, just stop and think of the ramifications for a long moment. And if your imagination still fails you, then pick up this book and read on. You need to know what it has to say. Really.
Mindscan – Robert J. Sawyer
Sawyer’s hero, Jake Sullivan, is struggling with a life-shortening, inoperable brain condition which could also leave him a vegetable – his father’s fate. So when he gets the opportunity to upload his consciousness into an android body, he takes it. At this point, we follow both Jakes. Sawyer’s unfussy, clear prose gives us a powerful insight into many of the emotional and practical problems following such a life-changing decision as both versions of his protagonist struggle to come to terms with their new status. His situation is alleviated by friendship with a feisty octogenarian, Karen, who also undergoes the same process. So far, the book is a masterful piece of storytelling that intelligently examines an issue that may well be confronting our grandchildren. But when Karen’s son sues, claiming that he has been cheated out of his rightful inheritance, Sawyer’s handling of the courtroom arguments for and against transferring human consciousness elevates this book from a good piece of science fiction to greatness.
The Commons – Matthew Hughes
This book charts Guth Bandar’s adventures in the Commons – the name for the collective unconscious – from his time as a young student trying to prove himself, to the climax of the story when he is in his middle years, still trying to prove himself. The protagonist is extremely well-drawn and likeable, as much for his failings that are charted in witty, unblinking detail – along with his strengths. So as he stumbles into yet another mind-threatening adventure, I was right alongside, hoping that he would prevail.
Despite the fact that the focus and subject matter is all about human psychology, there is plenty of visceral action here. The archetypes are ever-hungry for new people to populate their constant enactments of Situations and Events, even if the outcome leads to violent death. Which, being the human unconscious, happens only too often. However, don’t expect to be whipped along at breakneck speed a la David Gunn or Simon R Green, from one gore-drenched episode to the next. Hughes is offering so much more. The writing style is literate and restrained, even when the action gets bloodily heated – and there are constant shafts of witty humour.
Enduring Love – Ian McIwan
Joe Rose has planned a romantic picnic with his lover Clarissa after having been away on business. However, the delightful idyll is horribly interrupted when a hot air balloon, attempting a landing, starts to break away from its moorings with a ten year old boy inside. Joe, along with a number of other men, rush to try and anchor it. But when the sudden wind strengthens and Joe finds himself suddenly jerked off his feet as someone else lets go, he follows suit – until only one man, John Logan, is left hanging on – until he plunges to his death… Shocked at the terrible accident and feeling guilty for letting go, Joe rushes to the spot where the dead man is lying and encounters Jed Parry. They exchange a passing glance and Jed, suffering from de Clerambault’s syndrome, immediately falls passionately in love with Joe, with dire consequences.
The Dragon Keeper – Robin Hobb
To be a dragon keeper is a dangerous job; their charges are vicious and unpredictable, and there are many unknown perils. Not only are they not expected to return – no one wants them back… I, for one, was delighted when I realised that this book would pick up the adventures of the tangle of serpents as I’d found the whole storyline surrounding them and the liveships a really satisfying tale. So I started The Dragon Keeper with high expectations – and it did not disappoint.
The characters in Hobb’s stories are always strong and in this story we have several protagonists, all in third person viewpoint. The two that stand out for me are Alise and Thymara – but the whole cast are entertaining and once more, Hobbs gradually unwraps her plot with the deft skill we’ve all come to expect. Her world building is pitch perfect as the inhospitable Rain Wilds take its toll on man and beast alike – in contrast to the stifling confines of Bingtown’s society.
Turn Coat – Jim Butcher
This is the eleventh novel in the Harry Dresden files series. Has Butcher managed to keep the characters fresh and surprising? Are the plots getting increasingly entangled and mangled in an effort to breathe some new life into a threadbare scenario? Has the fact that the TV series was such a crock adversely affected Butcher’s enthusiasm for his wizard detective? For the record – yes, no and no. Butcher has managed to breathe new life into these characters, giving some of them a surprising twist. And no, there is no sense that this world is running dry of creative juice.
We have encountered the Council from time to time in Dresden’s adventures, but this further insight into their politics and the characters made for an entertaining read. Butcher manages to give all the major protagonists surrounding Harry Dresden an equally complicated and tortuous personal journey, which is probably one of the secrets of this series successful longevity.
I’m the King of the Castle – Susan Hill
This book is parked on the library shelf marked Horror. Having said that, there isn’t a vampire, zombie or sword-waving anything in sight. In fact, there isn’t much in the way of blood and gore or even a decent fight (sorry…). So why is it here? Because the book lodged in my brain like a burr since I read it years ago and having recently reread it, it’s every bit as good as I remember.
There might not be much in the way of supernatural mayhem, but a real sense of dread pervades as Hill carefully crafts a gothic, creepy feel in this tale of anger, longing, loneliness and brutality. The exquisite writing charts the struggles of the four major characters coming to terms with their loveless lives and the toll it takes on all of them. And if it sounds like it isn’t a barrel of laughs – you’d be right. But if you enjoy reading a gripping tale written by a highly accomplished author at the height of her unsettling powers, then this is a must-read book.
The Gone-Away World – Nick Harkaway
If you like your speculative fiction bubbling over with energy – part science fiction, part swashbuckler with plenty of fight action including ninjas, pirates and all-round hard men, then don’t miss this book. Harkaway’s exuberant literary style and sharp humorous observations gives his grim subject matter a rollicking feel as we experience the end of the world as we know it – and the start of something else.
The Jorgmund Pipe is the backbone of the world and it’s on fire. Gonzo Lubitsch and his fellow trouble-shooters have been hired to put the fire out. But this isn’t the straightforwardly dangerous job that Jorgmund’s boss, Humbert Pestle, has depicted. Gonzo and his best friend will have to go right back to their own beginnings to unravel the dark mystery that lies at the heart of the Jorgmund Company… For those of you interested in such things, Nick Harkaway is the son of the celebrated spy novelist John le Carré – and the writing talent certainly runs in the family.
Grimspace – Book 1 of the Sirantha Jax trilogy – Ann Aguirre
This enjoyable space opera romp features a feisty, no-holds-barred heroine with a troubled past and an unusual ability that puts her in a variety of life-threatening and difficult situations. Sounds familiar? It should do — unless you’ve been walking into bookshops and libraries with your eyes shut for the past couple of years. Take away the vampiric/werewolf trappings and the urban settings; and you’re looking at a science fiction version of the dark urban fantasy that has become so popular. Indeed, Aguirre has also written an urban fantasy series featuring a feisty, no-holds-barred… you get the idea.
As the carrier of a rare gene, Sirantha Jax has the ability to jump ships through grimspace — a talent that cuts into her life expectancy but makes her a highly prized navigator for the Corp. But then the ship she’s navigating crash-lands, and she’s accused of killing everyone on board. It’s hard for Jax to defend herself: she has no memory of the crash.
A Madness of Angels – Kate Griffin
Griffin grabs you from the first page and doesn’t let go until the last with her taut, poetic prose and action-packed story. Matthew Swift’s thirst for revenge against the terrible being preying on urban sorcerers leads him into dark places – and we are yanked along with him. There are one or two really bloody moments. Not to mention some scenes that score high on the ‘yuck’ factor – an attack by a litter monster being one of them. However, this book is so much more than a guts’n gore fest. Griffin’s ability to weave her action amongst the densely depicted London scenes that she clearly knows extremely well, gives the story an almost literary feel. And Swift is an amazing creation. Only half human, his instability while teetering on the edge of something terrible creates plenty of dynamic tension as he tries to pick up the pieces of his old life. And – yes – Griffin manages to conclude the story with a satisfactorily climatic ending, leaving enough interest dangling for another adventure.
Slow Lightning – Jack McDevitt
This sci-fi thriller is a fascinating take on how we might just blunder into another space-travelling civilisation. McDevitt also examines the idea of loss and grief in a time when the bereaved can summon up images of their loved ones and talk to them. His main protagonist never recovers from the death of her charismatic sister – and Kim’s investigation into what exactly happened on that last, mysterious mission, is as much an attempt to deal with her feelings about Emily.
McDevitt’s narrative sweeps Kim along into a morass of cover-ups, lies and sheer happenstance that I found compelling and believable. The world is beautifully depicted, with flashes of wry humour that give the moments of horror an extra dimension. The layers of futuristic detail were a joy to read – placing the story solidly in the McDevitt’s world without slowing the narrative or impeding a very tightly plotted storyline. It takes a confident writer very sure of his ability to pull off the steady build-up of suspense that characterises the first half of the book. There is action aplenty for the reader – but you have to work for it. McDevitt isn’t in the business of gun-toting heroes blasting away at one-dimensional villains three lines into the first chapter.
The Modern World – Steph Swainston – Book 3 of The Castle series
I picked up this book (known in America as Dangerous Offspring) because I’d heard some interesting things about Swainston as an author – people either seemed to love or loathe her – and I decided it was time I made up my own mind.
What is undeniable is that she is an outstanding writer. I didn’t start this book with joy in my heart. Being the shallow sort, I’m unduly influenced by book covers – and the UK cover of this one has to qualify as one of the dreariest offerings, ever. Once I opened it, the tiny font didn’t enthuse me, either. However, I persevered – and I’m very glad I did. Because this is one of the best written fantasy books I’ve ever read.
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld – Patricia A. McKillip
I’m not much into nostalgia. Yes – I thoroughly enjoyed reading the likes of Tolkien, Clarke and Heinlein way back, whenever. But I don’t look back fondly on any particular era as a ‘golden time’ because I’m too busy wading through current books piled up beside my bed. However, I do enjoy dipping into the Fantasy Masterworks series as I’ve come across some cracking reads in the process – and this is one of them.
For those of you who haven’t cut your teeth on Tolkein, the prose style will strike you as somewhat odd – while the rest of us will immediately recognise it as silmarillionese. I would urge you to persevere past the first few pages when it is particularly obtrusive if you do find it a problem; personally, it was like meeting up with a long-lost relation… But if you can grit your teeth at the start, I would hope that the story sweeps you up and takes you for a wonderful ride into a past when Fantasy didn’t mean conflicted vamps and weres prowling in search for blood, sex or both…
The Empress of Mars – Kage Baker
Your gaze rests lovingly on your battered copy of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, wondering why no one writes like that anymore… Well, I’ve uncovered another gem in the same mould, folks. Based on Baker’s Hugo-nominated novella of the same name, this is space opera at its rollicking best. While still set in Baker’s world of The Company – her series about time-travelling immortals plundering Earth’s history – it is entirely stand-alone to the extent that you don’t need to be aware Baker has written anything else, in order to appreciate the story.
A classic frontier tale of rugged individualistic grit pitted against shadowy religious and corporate ambition, Baker is very upfront about the influence of the Wild West in this book. This emphasis on the individual allows Baker free rein in her depiction of the gloriously mapcap characters peopling Mars as the plot weaves through a series of hurdles that Mary and her family have to scramble under and over. The characters leap off the page as the action sweeps them through edgy tense drama to humorous interludes verging on farce – classic Baker, in other words.
I Shall Wear Midnight – Terry Pratchett
This is the fourth Tiffany Aching book from The Great Man and his thirty-eighth Discworld novel. If you are a fan, then you’re in for a treat – this is classic Pratchett, complete with all the special individual touches we enjoy from this unique author, including the famous footnotes.
Tiffany is older, but Life isn’t getting any easier. She is working flatout in treating the sick – both animal and human, laying out the dead and interceding in local quarrels. In short, the duties of a typically busy witch. It doesn’t help when Roland announces his engagement to a highborn girl with blonde hair and delicate features. Neither does it help when the Nac MacFeegle, who insist on shadowing her every move, decide that she needs their help. Because something has been awakened. Something foul smelling and evil – something that moves amongst people and turns them against witches. Once more, it is down to Tiffany to save the day. But despite the fact that she is older and wiser, there’s every chance she’ll not succeed…