In the past three months, I've read thirty-five books, thirty-one of them ranged from good fun to memorable read, three I opted not to finish and one I finished and wished I hadn't (see My Biggest Disappointment).
I would recommend most of the books I've read so far this year but I've selected the seven I think truly stand out. I hope at least one of them snags your interest.
Best Mainstream Reads of the Quarter
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about "Anything Is Possible" is how readable it is. I found myself having to ration out the book so that I wouldn’t consume it in a single sitting.
Yet this isn’t page-turning in the conventional sense. There’s no complex and clever plot to unravel, no sense of threat or intrigue to tease yourself with page after page. There is just life as we all live it.
What makes it compelling is not that I want to know what happens next but that I want to know these people and, in the process, I want to know more about how their experiences mirror mine.
Each chapter focuses on someone who was in the supporting cast of characters when Lucy Barton was recalling her childhood in *My Name Is Lucy Barton”, In “Anything Is Possible”, each of them gets to be centre-stage for a while, the prime mover in their own universe. Each universe exercises a gravitational pull on at least one of the other universes in the book. We get a guided tour of their universe with the authorial voice capturing every emotion, memory and reaction with an empathy so deep you could drown in it.
The message I took away from the book is that living through things we don’t like is unavoidable. Life cannot be pain-free. We live and love imperfectly. We drag our past after us. Compassion, forgiveness and kindness are the best salves available to us.
"Dance, Gladys, Dance" starts with Frieda Zweig looking, at twenty-seven, for a fresh start where she can put aside her former life as a would-be artist and live a life more ordinary.
To help with this self-imposed task, Frieda defines "Five Steps To An Ordinary Life":
1. Get a real job.
2. Stop seeing the world as a series of potential paintings.
3. Learn how to talk about the weather.
4. Do the things that normal people do.
5. Figure out what normal people actually do.
Frieda's doomed attempt to embrace the ordinary leads her to rent a room in a Victorian house owned by a widower who teaches photography at a local Arts Centre.
After she moves in, she meets, Gladys, the ghost of the first woman to live in the house.
In addition to a cleverly designed set of events in the present day that weave together the fates of a number of strong characters, we have chapters that tell us more about Freida's life and how she came to give up on the idea of being an artist and, bit by bit, we hear Gladys' story.
Many of the characters in the book are damaged or in pain, because they lack belief in their own talent or they have given up on their belief that they can be who they want to be. The book shows women in particular as being at risk of losing themselves in this way or being denied the right to use their talent.
The message of the book seems to be: trust yourself, use your talent and take the small opportunities we all have to make the world a less awful place to live in. Delivering this message without coming across as either didactic or sentimental is what makes this book such a triumph.
"Lost For Words" was my first "recommend to anyone who reads" novel of 2018.
Set mostly in the Lost For Words bookshop in York, this novel follows Loveday Cardew as she decides whether and how to move beyond surviving in the refuge she has built for herself in the bookshop and start living a richer life, shaped by hope rather than fear.
I liked Loveday. She is comfortable in her own skin. She is a loner, not just because she has poor social skills but because she doesn't like most people. Most of the time, she prefers spending time, hunting, shelving, selling and reading books than she does talking to people and she has no problem with that.
Yet Loveday is not entirely who she wants to be. She has a secret that she hugs to herself that keeps a little more distance between her and the world than she would like to have. She knows that keeping the secret secret prevents her from being herself. She fears that sharing the secret will destroy the small safe space she lives in.
This is a novel about trust: how hard it is to win, how easy it is to lose, how necessary it is for happiness. Loveday has three men in her life: the larger than life owner of the bookshop who rescued her and offered her safe haven, the unpleasant and perhaps unbalanced ex-boyfriend who won't accept the ex designation and the young man, full-time magician and part-time poet, who she has just met. Her interactions with them, with the books in the bookshop and with her own past create the landscape through which Loveday is trying to find her way to a better future.
"Lost For Words" deals with abuse, male violence, mental illness, guilt and the possibility of hope, while staying down to earth and credible. Loveday is someone I can easily imagine meeting. Someone hard to get to know but worth the effort.
Best New Finds of the Quarter
It took me a little over two months to read the eleven stories in this collection because each one demands a period of reflection before moving on to the next. Each has its own flavour that I found I wanted to savour by itself for a while.
This is one of those rare collections where all the stories a strong and the themes and types of people that they cover are diverse. What binds them together is clear, simple but beautiful writing and an insight into people that is acute and dispassionate to the point of fatalism. You can find a review of each story here.
At the start of "American War" the narrator tells us:
"This isn't a story about war, it's about ruin."
It's a ruin that comes about from a belief found in conflicts everywhere:
"In this part of the world right and wrong ain't about who wins or who kills who. In this part of the world, right and wrong ain't even about right and wrong. It's about what you do for your own".
Treating others differently than your own seems to be a basic human response. When war comes, this response is the oxygen feeding the fire that turns everything it touches to ash and embers.
Omar El Akkad shows us this by putting us in the shoes of the losing side: the oppressed, the refugees, the ones who have seen everyone they love and everything they care about destroyed by an enemy so powerful that victory is unimaginable and the only possibilities are survival or revenge.
What makes "American War" powerful isn't the imagining of a 2075 America, damaged by global warming and collapsing into a civil war, prompted by the South's refusal to stop using fossil fuels but the creation of 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.
As we follow Sarat through years of war that slowly extinguish hope and replace it with shame, anger and an insatiable need for revenge. We see Sarat's slow transformation, t, from a bright, curious child, into a fierce fighter and then to a woman broken and in constant pain, We see
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.
Best New Series of the Quarter
I've selected two series that are new to me but which have already been around long enough to build a fanbase. "Urban Shaman", the first in the "Walker" series, was published in 2005 and eight more books have been added since. "Rosemary And Rue", the first in the "October Daye" series, was published in 2009 and twelve more books have been added since. I recommend them to you because they still feel fresh and exciting.
About five chapters in, my response was, "WOW. Why haven't I heard of this series before?" A day later, having finished the book in a self-indulgent binge read, I had a grin on my face because I'd found my new Urban Fantasy series for 2018.
What C. E. Murphy has done by merging Celtic and Cherokee myth is bold, original and more than a little risky but she pulls it off. The action is more a "Dr Strange"fight-the-forces-of-evil-while-travelling-outside-your-body-on-another-plane kind of thing than it is an "Avengers" hit-your-enemy-with-your-hammer /shield/large green fist type of thing. That's hard to do and may not appeal to everyone but Murphy does it well and I loved every minute of it.
Joanne Walker is likeable and has a character that is deeper and more complex than the usual kickass heroine with a sharp line of chat and a flair for martial arts. Most of the time Joanne has no idea what she's doing and words frequently fail her. I found this quite refreshing. The secondary characters, from the voluable cab driver to the perfectionist Police Captain, swiftly move from archetype to someone credible and interesting. The astral conflicts are described in surprisingly down to earth ways and conflict resolution is never about who has the biggest sword.
As a standalone book, it's fun, fast and fresh. As the first book in a series, it fills me with anticipation.
"Rosemary and Rue", the first book of the October Daye series, is an extraordinary piece of Urban Fantasy. It is sombre, complex and well written, a combination I can't resist.
It's not a normal Urban Fantasy story with a kiss-ass heroine whose magical powers and strength of personality allow her to triumph against overwhelming odds and live to fight another day, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
October Daye is not a heroine. She's just someone trying to find a place for herself in the two worlds her half-fae half-human blood straddle. Finding a place is more about survival than ambition. October lives in a world where failure has consequences and success has a price. It is grim, unforgiving and relentless.
The world.building in "Rosemary and Rue" is skilfull and original. October takes for granted abuse of power and levels of punishment that makes the "magical" world very far away from Disney Princesses and much closer to the Brothers Grimm. To me it seemed to be to Urban Fantasy what Cyberpunk was to Science Fiction - a grimier, more credible version that was less about escapism and more about mirroring how the normal world works.
Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter
"Year One" disappointed me not because it's badly written or poorly structured but because I found myself deeply out of sympathy with the values of the Good Guys, annoyed at the saccharine romance of the alpha pair and turned off by the obsession with fate and Messianic redemption.
"Year One" is a sort of urban fantasy twist on "The Stand". It tracks the path of groups of survivors of "The Doom", a virus which kills anyone who is not immune. As billions die, some of the immune discover latent magical powers and find themselves drawn to The Dark or The Light.
It's an easy to read entertainment that effortlessly manages the large number of characters and multiple initially parallel but eventually converging plot lines. The good guys are clearly drawn and instantly likeable. There are babies and a lab-cross dog. The bad guys are irredeemably evil and everyone else is either dead or consumed by fear.
As the book progressed I lost sympathy with the Good Guy characters, most of whom were from privileged, sometimes very privileged, backgrounds mourning the loss of their bright futures. It turns out that the secret to surviving the apocalypse is to band together with skilled people who embrace middle-class values, choose faith over fear, work together as a team and focus on "doing what comes next". Of course, emergent magical powers are also pretty useful.
What spooked me about it in "Year One" is that Nora Roberts wraps such positive emotions around these values that they slid into my imagination already tagged as a Good Thing. Then I thought about the scale of loss, of the billions dead, of cultures across the world extinguished, of losing everyone you ever loved, of having the value of your previous life challenged or eroded and it seemed to me that the main characters react almost as if they're on medication. Their ability to focus "on what needs doing" is certainly a survival skill but the ease with which they do it, the unthinking adoption of the "I'll protect Us against Them" mindset and the strong link Nora Robers makes between this stance and The Light made it difficult for me to empathise with or care about these people.
Later, I struggled with Nora Roberts' obsession with the idea that some things are "meant", that they're part of a "destiny", that it isn't enough for people to be attractive, privileged, educated and have magical gifts, they also have to have some kind of pintable-tilting agents of fate on their side. This began to feel like the dystopian urban fantasy version of meeting Mr Right.
At about the same time, we got the sex scene between the Alpha witch couple, Max and Lorna, the two "good guys" that I liked least, and it surfaced everything I disliked about the book: the sex was glossy, the sentiment was saccharine and the allegedly spontaneous vows that followed were so cliché-filled and delivered with such self-absorbed seriousness that I felt I'd dropped into the middle of a romance novel.
What finally extinguished my interest in this series was the idea of a Messianic "One" being sent to save the world. It's too "In God We (white, beautiful, magically-endowed people) Trust" for my British Athiest sensibilities.