If you can stand it – just a couple of stats; I read 86 books during 2011 and started 5 more that I didn’t complete. My definition of outstanding as a book is firstly one that sticks in my memory – this is quite a big deal as I have been known to hand a book across to my husband with the question, ‘Have I read this, before?’
In addition, an outstanding read has to have added something to my creative inscape, or provided me with food for thought. There are a couple on the list that didn’t seem to make a profound impression at the time, but have lodged in the back of my brain like a burr. Most of the books are extremely well crafted – I have spent too many years poring over manuscripts to tolerate poorly written work, but there are a few with major flaws that still made the cut on the grounds that they have the X factor – that indefinable something that quickened my pulses and had me arriving at the last page still wishing there was more…
I thought I’d share these with you, in case you’re looking for something really special to start your 2012 reading list.
Engineman by Eric Brown Paris is vividly described as a fading city, overrun in parts with alien vegetation as the population continues to move away to more thriving places, both on and off Earth. The previously bustling port and centre of the bigship industry is sliding into inexorable decline. And just as parts of Paris are no longer vital, neither are the Enginemen – those once elite corps of men and women whose brainwaves ‘pushed’ the bigships into the nada-continuum while in a trance-like state called the flux, allowing the ships to travel thousands of light-years in a matter of weeks and months. However, once interfaces were invented so that people could actually walk or drive through to colony planets, the Enginemen were obsolete and unwanted…
The book explores the plight which echoes that of generations of men and women through the ages who have found their skills are suddenly redundant. This is science fiction at its best – looking at contemporary issues through a futuristic lens. This amazing world and the spiky protagonist have stayed with me, even though I didn’t really like the ending, overmuch – the rest of it was so very strong I have included it.
The Radleys by Matt Haig This intriguing take on vamps is one of the selections of More 4’s TV Book Club 2011. Life with the Radleys: Radio 4, dinner parties with the Bishopthorpe neighbours and self denial. Loads of self denial. But all hell is about to break loose. When teenage daughter Clare gets attacked on the way home from a party, she and her brother Rowan finally discover why they can’t sleep, can’t eat a Thai salad without fear of asphyxiation and can’t go outside unless they’re smothered in Factor 50. With a visit from their lethally louche uncle Will and an increasingly suspicious police force, life in Bishopthorpe will never be the same again.
The writing is aptly sharp with a thread of black humour running through the book. Haig’s descriptions are vividly arresting, as the gripping storyline keeps the pages turning until you reach the end far too soon.
Banners in the Wind – Book 3 of The Lescari Revolution by Juliet E. McKenna This is the final instalment in this intriguing series where McKenna decided to see what would happen if the downtrodden masses and squeezed middle men revolted.
A few stones falling in the right place can set a landslide in motion. That’s what Lescari exiles told themselves in Vanam as they plotted to overthrow the warring dukes. But who can predict the chaos that follows such a cataclysm? Some will survive against all the odds; friends and foes alike. Hope and alliances will be shattered beyond repair. Unforeseen consequences bring undeserved grief as well as unexpected rewards. Necessity forces uneasy compromise as well as perilous defiance. Wreaking havoc is swift and easy. Building a lasting peace may yet prove an insuperable challenge.
For my money, this book is the best of the trilogy. This was always an astoundingly ambitious project – to depict a full blown revolution through the viewpoints of six characters. The fact that McKenna succeeded so well is down to the fact that she is an experienced, skilled writer whose epic Fantasy has always been character-driven.
The Family Trade by Charles Stross This start to his alternate historical science fiction series proves that Charles Stross is an outstanding talent and – unsurprisingly – won the 2005 Sideways Award for Alternative History, as well as a nomination for a Locus Award.
Miriam Beckstein is happy in her life. She’s a successful reporter for a hi-tech magazine in Boston, making good money doing what she loves. But when she receives a locket left by the mother who was murdered when she was an infant, the knotwork pattern hypnotises her. Before she knows it, she’s transported herself to a parallel Earth, a world where knights on horseback chase their prey with automatic weapons.
I love this world, where Miriam is constantly cold away from her modern comforts. Where, as a thirty-two year old, she is regarded as a dowager – almost past her prime purpose, which is to make an advantageous match and provide plenty of babies also capable of world-walking. The heroine is enjoyably complex with a completely understandable reaction to the shock of switching between the two worlds.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot This non-fiction book has become an international bestseller, charting a remarkable story that consumed the author for a decade.
Her name was Henrietta Lacks but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer whose cancer cells – taken without her knowledge – became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first ‘immortal’ human tissue grown in culture, HeLa cells were vital for developing polio vaccine, helped lead to important advances like invitro fertilization and gene mapping, and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta herself remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the ‘coloured’ ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to East Baltimore today, where Henrietta’s children and grandchildren live, and struggle with the legacy of her cells. Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family – especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into Space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?
The Cobra Trilogy by Timothy Zahn In a very smart marketing move back in 2004, Baen gathered together this fine series of books and put them into an omnibus edition.
The colony worlds Adirondack and Silvern fell to the Troft forces almost without a struggle. Outnumbered and on the defensive, Earth made a desperate decision. It would attack the aliens not from space, but on the ground – with forces the Trofts did not even suspect. Thus were created the Cobras, a guerrilla force whose weapons were surgically implanted, invisible to the unsuspecting eye, yet undeniably deadly. But power brings temptation… and not all the Cobras could be trusted to fight for Earth alone.
It sounds like just one more super-soldier adventure with warfare the staple and the protagonist spending his days dealing with a deadly enemy and corrupt officialdom on his own side… But it isn’t. Oh, there’s plenty of action, alright. Written with plenty of verve and tension – but the book quickly shoots off into another direction, exploring the far more intriguing political and social aspects of having a bunch of surgically enhanced fighters within a community. While they may be capable of saving a planet from a deadly alien invasion – what happens when the threat goes away and the majority of your force has survived the war?
The Way of Kings – The Stormlight Archive Book 1 by Brandon Sanderson A health warning comes with this book – it is a beast at just over a 1000 pages. So if you enjoy curling up in bed with your fav read, you may have to rethink how you hold/balance this breeze block edition – I know I did.
It is a mark of Sanderson’s writing skill that I was held throughout this monster – huge tomes of high fantasy are not high on my list of favourite reads, and I picked this up fully expecting to get about halfway through and then lose interest. However, in addition to effective characterisation, Sanderson’s world is fascinating. I loved the landscape, complete with original ecology and unusual wildlife – as well as a complicated, tortuous history and conflicting religious beliefs.
Cold Magic – Book 1 of The Spiritwalker Trilogy by Kate Elliott This engrossing offering is the first of Kate Elliott’s latest world – and if you’re a fantasy fan you’ll know that she is one of the leading talents in the field. She is excellent at providing interesting, multi-layered worlds and is also adept at producing satisfying complex characters – a combination that doesn’t always go together. As they approach adulthood, Cat Barahal and her cousin Bee think they understand the society they live in and their place within it. At a select academy they study new airship technologies and the dawning Industrial Revolution, but magical forces still rule. And the cousins are about to discover the full ruthlessness of this rule.
And, make no mistake, this is a rich and interesting world. Elliott herself describes it as “An Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy adventure with airships, Phoenician spies, the intelligent descendents of troodons, and a dash of steampunk whose gas lamps can be easily doused by the touch of a powerful cold mage.” So do we gain a sense of the full layered intricacy of this world through Cat’s eyes? The blunt answer has to be – no, we don’t. Not even after reading the second book in the series, Cold Fire, do I get a sense that I’ve done more than graze the surface of this fascinating world. Am I bothered? Not, particularly, no. If Elliott chooses to roll out a world of this richness and then only play in a corner of it, that’s hardly going to impact on my reading pleasure – unless she doesn’t produce a sufficiently interesting storyline with a convincingly complex cast of character. And she does.
Twisted Metal by Tony Ballantyne This is a story all about robots, living in a robot world. But before you embark on this novel– know that the grim cover is far closer to the tone and style of this book than any cosy childhood memories you might harbour of Metal Mickey…
Penrose: A world of intelligent robots who have forgotten their own distant past. A world where all metal, even that of their own wire-based minds, is fought over – a valuable resource to be reused and recycled. Now full-scale war looms, as the soldiers of Artemis sweep across the continent of Shull, killing or converting every robot to their stark philosophy. Only the robots of Turing City stand in their way. Robots who believe that they are something more than metal. Karel is one such robot. Or is he?
Ballantyne has pulled off a nifty trick, here. He has produced a credible world of metal beings who are gendered – the male robots provide the wire that the females can twist and weave into a mind that powers the average robot for somewhere between thirty to forty years. However, females in Artemis no longer take time to think and decide exactly what traits they are going to include into their children’s minds – they are indoctrinated into the ethos of Nyros, that all minds are only metal, so each robot’s needs and wishes is subordinate to the State. I’m sure this is starting to ring bells amongst the non-robots amongst you… While the action scenes and carnage surround the war are depicted with clarity and power, this book is so much more than a military shoot ‘em up romp.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – Book 1 of The Inheritance trilogy by N.K. Jemisin Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky – a palace above the clouds where the lives of gods and mortals intertwine. There, to her shock, Yeine is named one of the potential heirs to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with a pair of cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother’s death and her family’s bloody history.
Written in first person viewpoint, we are immediately sucked into a world where nothing is as it seems and the impossible and improbable occur at least a dozen times a day. Jemisin manages to sustain the tempo, while juggling a cast of outstandingly difficult characters in a bizarre setting and suck us right in to this page-turner until the climax and denouement – which I didn’t see coming. At no time did I feel that I was in the hands of some newbie feeling her way into this novel-writing business. She writes as if she’s been doing this all her life. As if she’s written a good dozen books and got another batch still cooking in her head. I surely hope so – because with a debut like this, I’ll want to jump into her worlds, again.
Room by Emma Donoghue This was short-listed for last year’s Man Booker prize and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for 2010. I got hold of the book after hearing Donoghue’s interview for Radio 4’s Women’s Hour when she mentioned that she was inspired on hearing about five year old Felix in the Fritzl case.
Jack is five and excited about his birthday. He lives with his Ma in Room, which has a locked door and a skylight, and measures eleven feet by eleven feet. He loves watching TV, and the cartoon characters he calls friends, but he knows what he sees on screen isn’t truly real – there’s only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until one day, Ma admits there’s a world outside…
This account could so easily have lingered on the grimness and sheer horror of their existence – but seen through the filter of a small boy, whose young mother has determined to shelter her son as much as possible from the worst aspects of their imprisonment, it becomes something else. Jack’s narrative gives us a fascinating insight in the ability of humankind to survive in a highly difficult situation.
Wise Man’s Fear – Book 2 of The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss It is the second day of the Chronicler’s visit to the small country tavern where our hero has tucked himself away, with his loyal Fae companion, Bast. The second day when he continues to tell his own life story – the true version… Or is it? Kvothe is the classic unreliable narrator, several times admitting that he has a habit of embellishing his reputation. At the start of this very long narration, we return to the University where we last left him battling enemies and pernicious poverty.
To be honest, I started the book with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. However, it didn’t take long before I was once more caught up by Kvothe’s charm to relax and let the Rothfuss magic do its stuff. He is a remarkable writer. At a thousand pages, this doorstop should be a lot stodgier and boring than it is. We have Kvothe’s recollection of a multi-talented, vibrantly youthful version of himself interspersed by a number of interruptions, where a poignant counterpoint is the burned out innkeeper, whose motivation in telling his tale seems to be to setting the record straight before his death. Or is it? Bast, his concerned companion, is still something of a puzzle – although we get a strong sense that he isn’t what he appears to be… The central theme of what makes a reputation and the nature of fame – a classic for fantasy fiction – is approached with intelligence, while the world is a masterpiece of interesting details that ensure it is convincingly complex.
Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts Konstantin Andreiovich Skvorecky was one of a group of Russion SF writers called together by Josef Stalin in 1946. Stalin, convinced that the defeat of America was only a few years away, needed a new enemy for Communism to unite against. Skvorecky and the others were tasked with creating a convincing alien threat; a story of imminent disaster that could be told to the Soviet peoples. And then after many months of diligent work the writers were told to stop and, on pain of death, to forget everything. Little is known of what happened to the writers subsequently but in 1986, Skvorecky made a dramatic reappearance at Chernobyl claiming that everything that he and the others had written was coming true. His assertion was widely disbelieved but Skvorecky claimed (tastelessly many believe) that the Chernobyl disaster and the destruction of the Challenger space shuttle conformed to the pattern set by Stalin’s scenario. Skvorecky believes that alien invasion is ongoing.
Roberts deftly portrays a Russia suffering a crisis of confidence with everyone scrabbling to cope with Gorbachev’s cataclysmic changes involving perrestoika against a backdrop of crumbling Communism. It isn’t a pretty picture – especially filtered through the viewpoint of an aging, burnt out ex-alcoholic. By rights it should be unremittingly grim enough to make the likes of Dan Simmons and Roger Levy look pink n’fluffy in comparison. However Roberts leavens the underlying awfulness of his subject matter and backdrop by dollops of humour, to the extent there are laugh-aloud moments in this book, which veers from moments of acute danger, high farce and reflections on the dreadful circumstances within a couple of pages without jolting the reader out of the story.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell This is an historical novel, set on a tiny man-made island in the bay of Nagasaki. This island of Dejima was the sole gateway between Japan and the West, in the guise of the Dutch East India Company, for some two hundred years. The tiny enclave was where two cultures rubbed shoulders and misunderstood each other. And in 1799 a young clerk, Jacob de Zoet, lands on the island with the intention of making sufficient money to return to Holland and marry his fiancée in five years’ time. Instead, he loses his heart to a beautiful but scarred Japanese midwife.
While the love story winds through the book it isn’t the engine driving the plot – what lies at the heart of this epic, boisterous roller-coaster is the gulf yawning between the Japanese and Europeans. Mitchell plays with his readers expectations by throwing in a few curved balls which I certainly didn’t see coming… Although, you might as well take curved balls in your stride, because almost everything else in packed into this novel. It takes a while to pick up pace as the reader is plunged into Mitchell’s extravagant prose while he depicts this extraordinary world and his beautifully drawn characters, who leap from the page with three-dimensional vividness. I’d advise you to relax and enjoy the richness and complex detail, for once things start kicking off the tale whips along at a cracking rate, with all sorts of double-dealing, corruption and dirty deeds afoot. And Jacob finds himself caught up right in the middle of it all…
Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch It isn’t that often I come across London-based Brit fantasy. This offering is a quirky, enjoyable adventure with lots of pace and humour, which nicely leavens the gorier moments. Peter is a coolly unflappable mixed-raced young Londoner with a very low boredom threshold, who is good at thinking on his feet. His laconic narrative, along with the long suffering observations about the labyrinth of police paperwork and procedures adds an extra twist of enjoyment to this tightly plotted piece of supernatural high jinks.
Peter’s relationship with his enigmatic superior Detective Inspector Nightingale has clearly got legs. For starters, they live in a spooky neo-Gothic fortress, complete with a creepy housekeeper, (think Mrs Hudson with sharp teeth…) and a running gag about the odd combinations that turn up in the packed lunches. One of the major characters in this book is mentioned in the title – London. Not only does Aaronovitch use some of the major tourist sites as backdrops to some of his set pieces, he also casually drops in actual café names and walks his readers through real neighbourhoods. In addition, he has woven the city’s history into this very contemporary tale – a really neat trick, as London’s past is part of its everyday richness. The patina of history lies as thickly as the traffic fumes along many of our capital’s streets – and Aaronovitch deftly mines this historical treasure trove to underpin his tale of mayhem and chaos. All in all, this is a readable, accomplished novel, crackling with energy and humour.
The Prometheus Project by Steve White This science fiction alternative history adventure has a really classic feel to it, starting as it does in the 1960’s, with Bob Devaney as a typically alpha-male ‘muscle for hire’ narrating the tale. Bob Devaney was a Special Forces soldier in the early 1960’s – until he is recruited into something called the Prometheus Project, which turns out to be the largest disinformation operation in history, targeted at the aliens who ruled the galaxy.
This could have so easily have descended into some clichéd retread, but instead bounces along with engaging gusto and freshness, aided by the first person narration of Devaney, reminding me all over again just WHY I love this genre so much. It’s a big ask to write convincingly about first encounters with aliens. For starters, they have to appear different enough that the reader is convinced they could have evolved on another planet – or if they are similar, provide a solid reason for it. And the protagonists have to appear sufficiently awestruck, without holding up the narrative pace while they boggle over the enormity of their discovery. Add to that the fact that those of us who enjoy the genre will have read this scenario at least a dozen times before – and you begin to see why most modern science fiction writers tend to avoid this plotline. However, White manages to pull off a roller-coaster adventure that had me reading into the small hours to find out what happens. An adventure that includes kidnapping, power politics with aliens and a really cool twist at the end that I didn’t see coming.
And there you have it, my reading highlights of 2011. If you want to read the full reviews, they are archived on the blog – better still, go and read the books… and let me know what you think.