I read recently that 'This time of year breeds lists like rabbits'. Very true, and who am I to go against the flow? Well, in this case, I'm right in there with it!
Goodreads tells me that I've read 43 books this year. Of course, I don't tell Goodreads everything, but it must be pretty close to that, and about normal for me. And most of them have been, indeed, good reads! One or two that didn't work so well for me, but I won't waste any more time on them.
There's been a lot a familiar names cropping up, as you'd expect - when you know a good writer, you go back to them. But I've also been getting to know some new authors, and even some new subjects. The spirit of adventure is not yet dead in me (especially if accompanied by a comfortable chair).
(Links go to the Amazon.co.uk page for that title, though in some cases it may be a different edition)
So, in no particular order...
The Wild Hunt and Other Tales by Vivienne Tuffnell
Vivienne is one of those favourite authors of mine. Sadly, with this book of short stories I think I've exhausted her canon. There is a possibility of a new book coming out this year, which is hopeful.
There are places that exist in the borderlands between fantasy and reality, between magical and mundane, between the mystical and the ordinary. They are wonderful places to visit, if sometimes also frightening. But going there isn't easy. These lands are narrow places: a writer who wants to take their readers into them must tread a fine line between a boring every-day story with some unlikely elements or an out-and-out fantasy with bits of commonplace pasted unconvincingly in.
But when it can be done - when a writer can successfully evoke a sense of our world rubbing shoulders with something magical, when they can make us think that unknown colours and scents may linger just round the corner - then they can trigger our sense of wonder, and a feeling that reality is bigger, brighter and stranger than we can possibly know.
Vivienne Tuffnell is an expert guide into those borderlands. She clearly knows this world well enough, and shows its inhabitants, with all strengths and weaknesses, clearly. But she also knows something of the magical, the beautiful, the dangerous and awe-full world beyond us. And she knows the places where they intersect - the borderlands.
In these short stories, she brings ancient myths to life, and mingles them with everyday life and everyday problems. The Hunter is pursuing his quarry just the other side of the garden gate, the Muse has the thread of life in her hands, a faery gift may be more dangerous than it seems.
Short they may be, but more thought-provoking and with more depth than some many full length novels. And always with a sense of wonder.
Meeting Amalek by Gev Sweeny
Another one of my regulars - I've read two of her historical novella's this year. This one I found particularly noteworthy for the strong atmosphere of claustrophobic tension in it.
You have a small Jewish family - Elodie, the narrator, her mother and her cousin - in an isolated farmhouse in a country torn apart by the Civil War. They are Union sympathisers (Elodie's father is away with the Union Army) in Confederate territory. And they have a motley collection of strangers in their house, forced to take shelter from a snowstorm. Someone who seems to be a deserter from the Confederate Army, someone who claims to be a Confederate officer hunting down deserters, two men who say they work for a newspaper but have had their wagon stolen.
It's a tense situation, with a lot of 'who's really who' mystery. You're left guessing about that right to the end, and the outcome can't be predicted. But underlying this story is another narrative, about how war confuses the boundaries between right and wrong, friend and enemy. Or that's how I read it. The clue is in the title. Amalek was the ancient enemy of Israel, the Amalekites attacked the Israelite refugees when they fled from Egypt - but what sort of person was he?
As is common with Sweeney's writing, the smooth flow of words and subtle humour overlay a much deeper and sometimes darker story. For me, what was particularly noticeable was how cultural conditioning enabled or caused intelligent people to overlook objective truths - as in the characters discussion over slavery. Shocking to think that people thought that way, even worse to think that some people still do, and disquieting to wonder what we are failing to see ourselves.
Not a long read, but a powerful one.
A History of the World in 100 objects by Neil MacGregor.
This wins the prize for the most boring cover of the year. Which just goes to show that the old adage about books and covers is correct, because this was about as far from boring as you can get. In fact, it's one of the best history books I've read. Covering thousands of years in short bite-sized chunks might seem likely to produce only a shallow and superficial look at the vastness of the subject. And of course, there are limitations on how deep MacGregor was able to go into each period. But the well-thought out use of different objects gives each chapter a clear focus around which he has built a hundred different snapshots of human life and progress - sometimes sad, sometimes uplifting, often amazing, always fascinating.
The short chapters make it ideal for dipping into, and very often I took away some intriguing fragment of knowledge which led me to do a bit more research into this period or that historical figure. The language is always clear and accessible, the insights are sometimes profound. Over all, it left me with sense of my connectedness to the rest of humanity throughout its existence - all of us making, using and leaving behind us the objects that mark and define our lives.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
Annie and I did some serious walking this year as we explored the idea of 'Pilgrimage' in both theory and practice. (More about that on my blog). Part of our preparation - apart from actually walking - was reading, and this is one of the best 'walking' books that we came across.
Surprisingly, perhaps, because this book is a bit of a horror story.
Not, of course, the sort of horror story involving vampires or zombies. Not even one with knife-wielding psychopaths. No, this is a much more mundane, common or garden variety of horror, and all the more horrific because of it. This isn't horror that lives at a safe distance away in fantasy land. This is horror that could be just round the corner. The horror of a few wrong decisions, a few honest mistakes and a hard-working couple are ground down and spat out by the legal system, homeless, jobless and broke. It can happen. It does happen. it happened to Raynor Winn and her husband.
Her husband who was also diagnosed with a terminal illness at about the same time.
They responded to this disaster with the same degree of courage required by any Vampire Hunter. With nothing else to do, they set out to walk the South West Coast Path. Along the way they discovered yet more horrors - but also incredible beauty and deeper strength than they realised they had.
Winn writes in a smooth, absorbing style that makes the words flow much more easily than the miles passed under their feet. Her descriptions are vivid, and her interjections of background knowledge about geology or history or wildlife are fascinating. Knowing some of these sections of the coast myself added to the interest, and increased my desire to visit some of the areas I haven't yet seen. (Though not quite like they did it. I have been put off the idea of wild camping!).
Although Winn disclaims any religiosity, there is to my mind a profoundly spiritual element to her experience - not least in the 'prophecy' they were given early on in their walk (but not confined to that either). They might not agree, but to my mind their walk takes on the nature of a pilgrimage.
'The Salt Path' kept me fully absorbed throughout, and left me with a sense of having shared in a deep and powerful experience.
Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith.
Popular science books of any kind must present one huge challenge to their authors (apart from all the normal challenges involved in writing anything). How do they choose what level to pitch it at?
Most people who write such books are either scientists themselves, or closely involved in the scientific world. They'd have to be, to be able to writer with any confidence or authority. (The old adage of 'Write what you know' must be especially true in this case). It follows that they know a lot more about their subject than they can put into their book, if they're writing for a general public audience. So they have to keep it at a level where most people will be able to follow their reasoning and understand their conclusions. They also have to know what they need to explain and how much background knowledge they can assume.
'A lot' and 'none at all' would seem to be the obvious answers! But that can go too far. If baffling your readers with science is bad, patronising them by being too basic is probably worse.
Somewhere between the two extremes is a sweet spot, where the reader has their eyes opened to some amazing things they didn't know before. Peter Godfrey-Smith has hit that sweet spot dead on in this book.
OK, there were bits I struggled to follow. This isn't light reading, and I'd recommend approaching it when your mind's at its freshest (which left me a fairly narrow window of opportunity). But it's well worth the effort: 'Other Minds' is packed full of fascinating, even thrilling ideas. And some quite beautiful word pictures as well. The incredible range of colours that cephalopods (a new word I learned!) can produce is wonderfully well described - as is the mechanism by which it is produced, and the implications of that ability.
This is popular science writing at its best.
My favourite reading continues to be Science Fiction and Fantasy - I run them together as some books stray across the fuzzy borderline between the two genres. But I've certainly read more of these this year than any other category, and any of them could have quite reasonably been included in this list of 'Best Reads' - which means that they weren't 'the best', just part of a common standard of excellent writing. So I'm going to pick on one which has the advantage of also fitting neatly under the 'Crime and Mystery' label. Plus which it was memorable for being one of the cleverest bits of writing I've ever come across.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
In an interesting little piece at the end of the book, Turton says a bit about how he came to write 'The Seven Deaths'. In it he says it took three months to plan it. I was amazed. Not that he'd take three months, but that he managed it at all.
It would be quite a twisty, complicated sort of mystery to write even if it had been done conventionally, with a convoluted mix of past murders, threatened murders, disappearances, blackmail, drug-dealing and various other crimes. But to write it -and to solve the various mysteries - from the perspective of one person who keeps reliving the same day over and over again, but in a different body each time, well, that is just brilliant.
What's more it's done with a clarity that keeps the reader fairly closely in touch with what's going on! I say fairly, because I can't be sure I didn't miss something here and there. But if I did it wasn't anything significant!
Turton's prose is smooth, well paced, laced with sharp humour and clever use of words. The characters are vivid - which is especially impressive when two people are inhabiting the same body and they are both distinctive! And in the end he wraps things up in a way that I found satisfying, without destroying the essential atmosphere of mystery that pervades the book. As with the character, the reader learns just as much as they need to, and no more.
I'll say it again - brilliant writing.
Finally, I have to make special mention of a new venture from one of my favourite authors. In the past I've included some of her excellent historical fiction in my annual list: this year she made the move into fantasy, and what a great job she made of it! (This review also gave me opportunity to pontificate on one of my favourite subjects - world building).
Queen of the Warrior Bees by Jean Gill
What’s the difference between historical fiction and fantasy? Well, the obvious answer is that historical fiction is based round times and events that actually happened, even if the story itself is entirely made up. And it follows from that that the writer of historical fiction has to pay careful attention to their research: the fine detail of the world they are writing already exists and they must be careful to fit their story into it.
With fantasy, on the other hand, there is no such background to draw on. The writer may be able to draw on other sources for some of the detail, but it’s up to them and their imagination as to how those details are fitted together. They don’t have the constraints of having to work within historical facts, but neither do they have the ‘safety net’ of a known structure to use. It’s all down to their imagination. They have to build their world from the ground up. Its physical and social structures, it’s economics and technology – everything that will impact on the story, right down to the fine detail of what the people wear and what they eat – is all in the writers hands. Not only must they invent it, they then have to make sure all the parts work together, to form a coherent, believable, liveable world that their characters can inhabit and that their readers can identify with.
So when an author turns from historical fiction to fantasy, the big questions for me is ‘how good is their world-building?’
In this case, Jean Gill has written some excellent historical fiction – most noticeably in the ‘Troubadour’s’ series – and a number of other books in different genres as well. I have enjoyed everything of hers that I’ve read, and have no doubt at all about her ability to string sentences together! Word-flow, plot, characterisation and so on – she has all the basic elements of story-telling well under control.
So for me the main issue was her world-building. Could she construct a complete fantasy world with depth, colour and authenticity?
It didn’t take long to find out. From the very first sentence, the reader is immersed in a world that is all-too believable. The Citadel is a place of subtle horror. There are no ravening monsters or demonic creatures here, but the sense of all-pervading wrongness is always present. It is all the more ominous because it is only the main character, Mielitta, who seems aware of it. To everyone else, The Citadel is a place of safety, where they are protected by the power of the Mages from the terrors that lurk outside its walls in the Forest – a place whose name they cannot even say after adulthood.
I don’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoilers. Because this is not merely an adventure story grafted onto a fantasy world. This is a story that grows out of the world that has been created for it, that could only take place in this form in this world. This is really effective world-building: Gill has created somewhere unique.
Which is not to say that it does not have its connections with our world. There are some very clear parallels between the Citadel and much of what we think of as reality – not so much in the setting perhaps, but definitely in the people, very human in their characters and attitudes. There are things we can learn that apply to our lives as well.
We can also learn a few things about the forging of arrowheads, and quite a lot about bees. Where research is needed, Gill does it thoroughly and she is has done a particularly good job of merging her own knowledge (acquired from her own experience as a bee-keeper) with the fantasy elements as Mielitta experiences life in a hive from the bees point of view. This is also a unique point – at least, I haven’t come across another fantasy that uses bees as main characters.
The story builds to a powerful climax. Not all questions are answered, though, and not all problems resolved – there are enough loose ends left for at least one sequel. This world is still being built, and there is a lot more to discover in it!
You'll have noticed that I haven't kept to just five titles this year, as in past years (some past years, anyway). I haven't even attempted to - in truth, I'm surprised I kept it to seven. There are so many other possible titles and so many great writers out there.
Such as: Joe Abercrombie (dark but gripping fantasy), Emma Newman (wonderful SF), Peter Newman (equally wonderful fantasy), Lizzie Eldridge (deep-diving into complex human situations), Frank Herbert (I finally got to read 'Dune'!)... and so on.
More to look forward to in 2020!