I’m celebrating the 21st World Book Day today by recommending twenty-one books that have brought me pleasure over the past four years.
I’ve split the recommendations into three: Seven Mainstream Reads, Seven Speculative Fiction Reads, and Seven Series built around strong female characters.
I've included a link to my original review of each book if you'd like to know more.
I hope at least one of these catches your eye and leads you to celebrate a new book.
Seven Mainstream Reads
These are all books which engaged my emotions with credible characters that I cared about.
"Idaho" by Emily Ruskovich is a non-linear novel in which each chapter is a work of art. Emily Ruskovich can write in a way that makes you fully aware of how a particular person is experiencing something that is vivid and immediate but also ladened with context and possibility. It is an intense, absorbing experience.
The narrative is triggered by an act of violence that changes the lives of almost all of the characters in the book. Revealing this narrative in a non-linear way is not done to enhance the tension or to build to a great reveal, but to show that we are not the events that we live through. They can harm us or help us but the self we bring to each moment is what shapes the outcome of an event.
“My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry,” tells the story of an almost eight-year-old girl confronting grief and loss while pursuing a quest set by her grandmother. It is a unique novel that spoke directly to my emotions while still giving the rest of me plenty to work with.
"Rain Reign" by Ann M. Martin, tells that story of Rose Howard, a high-functioning autistic little girl who will win your heart and may change your mind.
Rose's narrative voice is direct, compelling and sometimes heart-breaking. She tells us, with structured, straight-forward honesty, about her life , her lover for homonyms, her father’s life, why she isn’t allowed to ride the school bus anymore, her teacher, her classmates, her uncle, the damage that Super Storm Hurricane Susan did and her dog, Rain (whose name is a homonym: R A I N and R E I G N), whom she loves even more than homonyms and who loves her back
As Rose told her story, I began to understand the clarity and honesty of Rose’s vision and to share her ability to take joy in things that most people don’t value (what can I say: I really do enjoy homonyms) and to admire the effort she puts in to communicate with the people around her despite their tendency to break rules and to be mean to each other
“The Readers Of Broken Wheel Recommend” is a charming book about how reading creates community and how communities create readers. It’s a love story that is as much about the love of reading as it is about the love people have for each other.
“Everything I Never Told You”, by Celeste Ng had my full attention 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. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to know what happened next – Lydia is dead. I’ve known that from the first sentence – but I wanted to deepen my understanding of what that death and that life had meant.
I highly recommend “My Name Is Lucy Barton” . It’s full of truth. It will make you cry. It will make you feel less alone. It will give you courage. It will fill your imagination as you read it and echo in your memory long afterwards.
The book is about:
“A poor girl from Amgash who loved her momma.”
It’s not a plot-driven book or even a character-driven book. It’s a book in which Lucy, talking to us directly and frankly, shares her thoughts, emotions and memories about how she and her mother were together. In a few hours of listening, I felt that I knew who Lucy Barton was, at least as well as anyone can know such a thing.
Given that “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” about a person who is very far from completely fine, who bears the physical and mental scar of childhood trauma and lives in a state of brutal isolation, it might sound like a depressing read. Yet I found it hopeful and sometimes funny, not because it escaped from reality but because it captured it so well but never gave in to despair.
There is so much understanding here of how day to day life really is, how we struggle with it, how loneliness colonises our lives like a carcinogenic mould until our lives become literally unbearable and how important small acts of kindness and regular honest contact are. The writing is pretty much perfect. The characterisation is both subtle and clear. Modern life is closely observed and then relayed through the unique filter of Eleanor’s perception.
Seven Speculative Fiction Reads
These are stories about AIs and identity, survival in, dystopias and post-apocalyptic worlds, using time travel to try and control history. What they have in common is that they stretched my imagination and let me re-examine things I take for granted.
"The Unseen World" by Liz Moore was one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had this year. I connected with it on many levels. It wasn’t just a storyline I was following or a character that I could vicariously live through. It was much more immersive that.
"The Unseen World” took up residence in my head and my heart. It's a book about identity and memory and above all, about the compassion for all of the characters in the book who are unable to bridge the distance between themselves and people that they love.
“Station Eleven” is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia but its focus is not on the disaster or the destruction that follows. It is a beautifully told story about how the need for art that speaks to our imagination and our emotions is strongest when we are dealing with personal or global adversity.
"Speak" by Louisa Hall is an exciting, original, haunting book about AI and sentience. Told through a series of compelling first-person accounts that an A.I. has stored, "Speak" looks at the difference between memory, sentience and intelligence in a way that made me think and touched my emotions.
“The Girl With All The Gifts” is a fresh, surprising and skillfully told take on a well-worn theme of a post-apocalyptic mayhem that moves beyond scenario and plot to become a character-driven view on what makes us human and how the stories we tell each other change the world.
"The Water Knife" by Paulo Bacigalupi is set in a near future where water has become more precious than oil in the Western States of what used to be the USA. This is a grim, difficult, disturbing book that mirrors the nature of the world being described. There are no heroes, just people trying to do what they can with what they have in a world that doesn’t care about them or what they want.
Paulo Bacigalupi writes with wonderful clarity and an emotional impact that comes from truthfulness. The truth about the world he is describing in “The Water Knife” is almost unbearably brutal and cruel. No one escapes undamaged and the damage is described with a degree of detail that is nauseating at times but which remains honest rather than gratuitous.
“The Wolf Road”, by Beth Lewis, is told as first-person account of events through the eyes of Elka, a seventeen-year-old woman who is almost feral. She lives in the wild by becoming part of it not by trying to tame it. She is another predator in the forest, moving soundlessly, killing efficiently, hiding her tracks and building shelters and making fires to keep herself safer at night. It is only when she has to deal with people and their rules and their written-down words that Elka is vulnerable.
The novel opens with Elka hunting a monstrous man: large, fierce and bloodied, in a snow-filled forest, marked with a trail of blood. Hiding in a tree, she throws her serrated knife with enough power to pass through the man beneath his collarbone and pin him to a tree. Then she leaves him, cursing behind her, knowing that the Sheriff will find him soon. The murdering monster she has pinned to the tree is the man who raised her from the age of seven and taught her how to move through the world.
Most of the rest of the novel tells us how this came to be.On the surface, the book is a picaresque novel, following an outcast as she makes her way across the country, running from her enemies and constantly under threat from the people she meets. Underneath, the structure of “The Wolf Road” is more complicated. It isn’t about Elka’s adventures. It’s about Elka coming to understand who she is and how she got to be that way.
“Time and Time Again” by Ben Elton is ‘what if?’ time travel story that turns from Boy’s Own Adventure into something dark, bleak and pitiless. Once again, Ben Elton delivers a fascinating but uncomfortable read.
"Time And Time Again" starts as a travel-back-in-time-to-save-the-world book but becomes something with a much less romantic view of history. It is an often brutal reminder that the past was someone -else's present and that the present is the only opportunity we have to act.
Series Built Around Strong Female Characters
I enjoy novel series that are based around strong woman facing difficult challenges. I enjoy watching them change and grow. I’ve picked seven of my favourites. I've called them "female characters" because only three of them are human. They are a diverse group: a zombie, an android, an AI, a Native American investigator, a cleaner, a shape-shifter.
Dana Stabenow's twenty-one Kate Shugak books have brought me a great deal of pleasure over the years. Kate is a Native American living in a National Park in Alaska.
The first book "A Cold Day For Murder", starts with Kate living like a recluse on her homestead, recovering from an attack that left her scarred and resulting in her leaving her investigator job in Anchorage. Her return to herself begins with her former boss asking her to investigate a disappearance in the Park.
Kate is a remarkable character: strong, brave, ruthless, sometimes reckless. She is surrounded by a cast of interesting, believable characters that run the course of the series. Alaska itself is a character in these books: its geography, its fauna, its history, its politics and its people. I recommend the audiobook version, read by Marguerite Gavin.
I was a late finding Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson urban fantasy series but so far I've read seven of the ten books and none have disappointed me.
We first meet Mercy Thompson in "Moon Called". With each book after that, her world gets richer.
This is Urban Fantasy at its best.There's a likeable, kickass heroine who was raised by werewolves, makes her living fixing German cars, can take on the shape of a Coyote at will and is happy to spend time with fey, vampires, werewolves and humans as long as they're interested in cars. There's a complex cast of weres and vampires and fey and humans who are written up as people rather than game avatars.
What I like most is that Mercy is that Mercy grows as the series progresses and she does so as much because of her vulnerabilities as her strength.
Joel Shepherd's Cassandra Kresnov is one of my favourite characters in Science Fiction. Kresnov was built as a super-soldier to fight an interstellar war. She is deadly when she chooses to be. She is sentient but not human. What makes her interesting is her choice to walk away from the people who created her and try to live a life a free person in the midst of her former enemy.
"Crossover", the first book in the series, looks at how a society that sees itself as libertarian and easy-going, reacts to discovering a killer android living covertly in their city.
Over the six books of the series, Joel Shepherd delivers a character-driven storyline, set in a satisfyingly complex universe, while exploring what it really means to be human.
Tanya Huff is one of my favourite writers. She has a knack for trope-twisting and for having powerful people choose the path less travelled by. Gunnery Sargeant Torrin Ker is one of her finest creations. She is a soldier, fighting an endless war on behalf of a Confederation of races, the most senior of whom see themselves as too civilized to fight and so use three younger races to fight and die for them.
On one level, the books are straight Military SF, packed with fighting and intrigue On another they look at what it means to be a soldier, the impact of honour on power and what courage really is. You can find my review of the first three books here.
I confess to a prejudice here. The gender of Brek, the main character in these books, is not specified. Gender-neutral honorifics are used throughout. The character is an AI that used to be a Ship but is now bounded by the human body it has occupied. Calling Brek a woman is just the leap my imagination made.
Starting with “Ancillary Justice”, Ann Leckie builds a whole universe, spanning many worlds and huge tracts of time but she keeps the focus of her story human and character driven.
Brek is an AI who seems to be a better person than the humans around her even though she was conceived primarily as a weapon of conquest. As the series progresses the focus is on what it means to be sentient and civilized. There's lots of action but this is primarily as a set of books about power and the choices we make when we have it.
I think the Lily Bard series, starting with "Shakespeare's Landlord" is Charlaine Harris' best work. Get past the slightly silly title's and the low production standard covers and you'll find one of the best series I've ever read about what it means to be a rape survivor.
While each of the five books has a standalone mystery in it for Lily to help solve, the real driver of the series is Lily's struggle to re-engage with life after having been the victim a brutal rape.
There's nothing trivial or exploitative here. There is a lot of truth and some of it is hard to take. I admire Charlaine Harris for having written a hero is marked by her rape but refuses to be destroyed by it.
My final recommendation is the irrepressible Angel Crawford in Diana Rowland's White Trash Zombie series.
I've followed Angel Crawford since her appearance in "My Life As A White Trash Zombie". It was my first ever zombie book and not at all what I was expecting. Angel has her life saved by becoming a zombie. She takes the opportunity to drag herself out of the drugs and abuse life she's been living and tries to make herself into something more.
I love her humour and her courage and her frailties. This is one of the few series I pre-order. I recommend the audiobook version.