No theme here, nor any word count cleverness. Just five books I really liked and recommend heartily: Ian Sales' Adrift on the Sea of Rains, Mary Wilkins Freeman's Understudies, Johan Harstad's 172 Hours on the Moon, George Tomkyns' The Battle of Dorking and James M. Cain's The Cocktail Waitress.
Adrift on the Sea of Rains (2012) by Ian Sales. Mr. Sales and I don't have the same taste in science fiction. He likes rocket ships and space maths and detailed research - hard SF. I like tentacles, weirdness and angst. So when I read Adrift, I was prepared for - not disappointment, but dissonance. Boy, was I surprised.
This is a book about astronauts trapped on the moon, trying to get home. And, I'll be damned if he didn't crack the perfect balance between character and concept. Absolutely, Adrift is about angles and gravity and scientific whatnot that I'm sure is perfectly correct, but, more importantly, it is about isolation and despair and hope and belief. It is a balance between science and fiction, and, despite the brevity of the novella format, simply one of the best space operas I've ever read.
Understudies (1901) by Mary Wilkins. Mary Wilkins is the only author to appear in Lost Souls twice. That wasn't intentional. While going through the stacks and stacks of stories, we picked out one by "Mary Wilkins" and one by "Mary Freeman". When we realised that was the same woman... we stuck with it. In an anthology with Arthur Conan Doyle, Bret Harte, Mary Coleridge, Stephen Crane, etc - Ms. Wilkins/Freeman still deserves to be the one doubly represented. ("Amanda Todd" is the story which has become our de facto cover, thanks to Vincent Sammy's beautiful illustration.)
Her introduction in Lost Souls contains more about her unusual life - first a 'failed' writer of children's books, then an immediate success when she turned her hand to an older audience. She specialised in the fiction of small towns; lonely hearts and failed lives and small triumphs. Understudies is appropriately heart-breaking, a collection of short stories centred around animals: the doctor's horse, a lost dog, a squirrel... but actually about the people that rely on them. It isn't on Project Gutenberg, but it has been snaffled by Google Books. (Or you can read Lost Souls, naturally.)
172 Hours on the Moon (2012) by Johan Harstad. Not a dissimilar structure to Adrift, above. But in this case, the folks trapped on the moon are a group of high schoolers - sent into space as part of a misguided PR initiative. Less "Space Camp" and more "Alien", this starts like a teenybop romance and quickly and unexpectedly evolves into very unsettling horror. The characters are YA stereotypes (the cool kid, the emo kid and the good kid), but the thoroughly disturbing Weirdness of their lunar encounters makes this a surprisingly memorable book.
On one hand, I'm shocked this is packaged as YA. On the other, the sort of functional helplessness of the kids adds to the horror (why, for example, "Alien" and "Alien 3" are scarier than "Aliens"); they're not competent - they're prey.
The Battle of Dorking (1871) by George Tomkyns. Enough has been written about The Battle of Dorking that there's not much I can add. It was one of the first great 'what if?' stories that posited the invasion of Great Britain by an overwhelming force (generally the Germans; or, if you're H.G. Wells 27 years later, Martians). These served not only as thinly-veiled calls to arms, but also examples of using SF-type extrapolation to score political points. In Dorking, The middle-class protagonist blunders about, a conscript in the enthusiastic (but ill-fated) defense effort. The British army is keen, but badly supplied, badly led and badly out-maneuvered. Fortunately, the Kaiser is gentlemanly in his rule.
Dorking succeeds where other, similar efforts (see: Walker's America Fallen!) fail, in that it keeps everything based around a central character. For those that heard Lauren Beukes speak recently, she often makes the point that fiction has a role for stories "too true for journalism". Dorking follows that model. By coaxing the reader into empathesing with a single character's plight, Mr. Tomkyns does a thorough job of illustrating the despair of the entire campaign. As a result, Dorking isn't just significant for its role as early science fiction, but it is also a good story in its own right.
The Cocktail Waitress (2012) by James M. Cain. Speaking of significance, this is a new book by James M. Cain. There's been plenty of media hooplah about this already, but, in some sense, there can never be enough. Hard Case Crime's editor, Charles Ardai, managed to find, piece together and publish a lost manuscript by one of The Noir Greats (caps for emphasis - you've got Cain, Chandler, Woolrich and Hammett. Everyone else can crowd on the second rung and stare upwards).
[Aside: "Noir" is a term bandied about a lot lately, especially in genre fiction - apparently there's a lot of "fantasy noir" bouncing around. This is... slightly bollocks. "Fantasy noir" seems to have snaffled the original definition of "urban fantasy" - in that it is shorthand for "fantasy in a city". Meanwhile, "urban fantasy" does an awkward shelf-tango with "horror" and "paranormal romance". A dude in a city? Not noir. A dude in a city wearing a trenchcoat and solving mysteries? Still not noir. The dude in a city could be wearing a trenchcoat, solving mysteries, drinking himself into the gutter and calling himself a 'shamus' and still not be noir. The aesthetics and the themes are two very different things.* I'm starting to appreciate the complaints of the steampunk purists.]
Meanwhile, back with The Cocktail Waitress. It is a far cry from Mr. Cain's best (obviously, the circumstances of being dead for the editorial process would make a bit of a difference), but it is still very, very good. In a nutshell, it is the traditional adultery/murder tale; one that Mr. Cain has already approached from several directions. But in The Cocktail Waitress, it is a first-person narrative from the point of view of the femme fatale. Or is she? There's every chance that Joan Medford is just the victim of awful circumstances, trapped in a situation out of her control. This is a masterpiece of the unreliable protagonist.
(It is hard to talk about this without spoilers, but I'm particularly interested in the book's ultimate nemesis/denouement/thing, in which Cain relies on knowledge that may or may not be available to the reader, but certainly isn't contained within the text. Mr. Ardai touches on this in his excellent afterword.)
*Actual fantasy noir: Lavie Tidhar's Osama. Not fantasy noir: pretty much everything else. Discuss.