The last three months have flown by in a blur that left me with relatively little time for reading. I managed only nineteen books (one of which i didn't finish) but I had a lot of fun. The best reads really where outstanding and I found not one but two new series to lust after. So here's my best and most disappointing reads of the summer.
Best Reads of the Quarter
"Station Eleven" is the best piece of Science Fiction I've read in a long time. It also stands up as main stream fiction.
The writing is skillful, the stories weave in and out of each other with grace and beauty and the emotions run deep.
At one points the narrator says: “A life, remembered, is a series of photographs and disconnected short films.” Much of “Station Eleven” is like that: collages of images that the reader forms into patterns, comic book pages where the colors and shapes and the relative size of the panels carry the story while the text is a decorative highlight.
“Station Eleven” braids strands of cultural references, from “Star Trek Voyager”, source of the “Because Survival Is Not Sufficient” quote, through TV Guides and gossip magazines, to Shakespeare’s plays, and live classical music, to create a bright new world full of hope, threat and sorrow.
This is novel that helps you set your life in context and ask yourself what you really value and why.
Nick Hornby's "Funny Girl " is a gentle, compassionate look at British TV comedy in the 60’s and 70’s
It tells the story of Barbara, a young woman from “up North” who declines to accept the title of Miss Blackpool and moves south to London to follow in the footsteps of her idol, Lucille Ball and become a comedian. She clicks with the writers of a new show for the BBC, they re-write the show as showcase for her and her career takes off.
As we follow Barbara’s career from ingénue through comic star to redoubtable Dame of British Television, Nick Hornby helped me understand the transitions that Britain was going through and the role comedy played in helping audiences to understand themselves.
I was deeply impressed by Nick Hornby’s ability to write a novel that often made me laugh but which is centred around very believable, very human characters, with strengths and flaws and personality quirks, who he describes with a compassion that comes very close to love and which generates a possibility of hope that I found very affecting.
Best New Finds of the Quarter
"The Reader's Of Broken Wheel Recommend" is a wonderful romantic comedy about books, small town America, books, friendship, books, love, books and how to live a life worth reading about.
At the centre of the book is Sara, a gentle, perceptive young woman from Sweden who has fallen in love with books but has never really succeeded in engaging with people, except for Amy, her pen-friend in the USA with whom she corresponds about books and life and the meaning of both. Through Amy’s letters Sara learns about the small town of Broken Wheel and the people who live in it and a new urge strikes her: to go out into the world and experience things for herself.
Sarah arrives in the USA for her long-planned visit with Amy, only to find that her friend has died. The people of Broken Wheel insist that Amy would have wanted her to stay and move her in to Amy’s house.
What follows is a delightful story of the world as I would like it to be, where good people help each other to be better people and books expand people’s imaginations and unlock their hearts.
I fell in love with this book. The kind of love that you want everyone to share. I felt like I should stand outside Waterstones with a sign saying "READ THIS IF YOU LOVE BOOKS". Please, give it a try.
Best New Series of the Quarter
This Quarter I was fortunate enough to find two new series that I'm looking forward to reading. Both of them are about vampires in in an alternative London and feature a strong female lead and yet they feel as if they have hardly anything in common.
The first is "Dire Straights" by Helen Harper.
Set in an alternative contemporary London where Tribers (Demons, Witches and Vampires) have been an accepted part of society for centuries, “Dire Straits” tells the story of Bo Blackman, a bottom-rung-of-the-ladder investigator at the Dire Straits detective agency, who is set up for a murder charge when she attempts to serve a summons on a demon.
“Dire Straits” is excellent Urban Fantasy by any standard: it gives a new and convincing take on Vampires, Witches and Demons; it has a complicated, well thought through plot that kept me hungry to know what would happen next while feeding me action, tension, and emotional upheaval along the way and the main character is engaging as much for her flaws as for her strengths.
I was so impressed with the "Dire Straights" that I went into a feeding frenzy and read the four books in the series so far in one month. Now I'm waiting impatiently for the next one to be be published.
The second new series that captured my imagination is the "Parasol Protectorate" a witty steampunk urban fantasy series, featuring a redoubtable parasol wielding heroine, that starts with the intriguing title, "Soulless".
Set in an alternative Victorian London, in which vampires and werewolves have been Establishment figures for centuries, dirigibles fill the sky and respectable young ladies do not move about town without a chaperon, “Soulless” tells of the trials and tribulations that befall the remarkable Miss Alexia Tarabotti after she unintentionally kills an impertinent vampire with the aid of a hair stick and a parasol.
Miss Tarabotti is remarkable not because of the stain of having had an Italian father from whom she has inherited unfashionably tanned skin and an over-proud nose, nor because, at twenty-seven she is still a spinster, nor even because of a regrettable tendency to read science and ask inconvenient questions, but rather because she was born without a soul. Being soulless gives her the ability to neutralize the powers of supernatural beings, cancelling out the over-abundance of soul that is believed to explain their existence.
"Soulless" was wonderfully entertaining read that left me hungry for more.
Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter
"Raising Steam", the fortieth Discworld novel, makes it into this category only because I have such high expectations of Terrx Pratchett's books.
I've read all the Discworld novels and I'm in love with quite a few of them. On the surface, "Raising Steam" has the makings of another fine Discworld novel. It has two of my favourite characters, Moist von Lipwig and Commander Grimes, coming to grips with the invention of the steam train and revisionist Dwarf terrorists, challenging the Koom Valley Accord.
Big themes are brought to the table: how subversion whispers in the dark, spreading fear and denying truth; how there is something magical and dangerous about a new technology; how the men who tinker endlessly and obsessively can become a bigger threat to the status quo than any terrorist and how, in the end, love is a greater driving force than steam.
And yet, this wasn’t a great Terry Pratchett book. Something was missing.