Short Story Day Africa - The Winners
Fiction: 'A Study in Psychology' by Harle Oren Cummins

The Best and Worst Books of October

Books books books. October was the busiest month so far - NYCC, lots of travel, podcasting, you name it - so let's stop dilly-dallying and get to the action, shall we?

vesperLots and lots of series

My Lloyd Alexander kick continues. I reread Prydain (lovely, but pitched younger than I remembered - probably because I haven't reread it since I was 10), read Westmark for the first time (spectacular) and rereading the Vesper Holly series (so much fun).

Lots and lots and lots and lots of historical romances - more on that here.

Scott Sigler's Galactic Football League. Made it through The Champion (#5), and curious what will happen in the two yet-to-be-published volumes. FOOTBALL VS ALIENS. HOO-RAH!

Kate Brian's Private series - currently through The Legacy (#6). Those wacky rapscallions! 

...and slowly continuing the Edward S. Aarons "Sam Durrell" series, up through Assignment - Stella Marni (#4). So far, the even numbers are weaker and the odd numbers are amazing, with #3 (Assignment Suicide) the best of the lot. That said, there are still 44 books to go in the series, so I'll hold off on drawing too many conclusions.

But enough of that silliness, let's get to the fun stuff.

Code_Name_VerityMy October Favourites

Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity (2012). I went in skeptical - probably the result of too many people telling me too much, too often about how great this book is. And yet, there I was, reading this on a plane and bawling my eyes out at 30,000 feet. Screw you, Elizabeth Wein. You made me cry on a plane.

Aside from the frequent groin-punching of the narrative, there's also a lot to be said about how the book is - rather genuinely - surprising. There are the twists you expect, and then the ones you don't. And they all hurt. SO MUCH.

Joe Abercrombie's Half the World (2015) well... I'm being a dick by mentioning it this early prior to release, but fair's fair - this was one of the best books I read in October. Half a World is a charmingly greasy novel in which a pair of flawed protagonists worm their way through epic events, largely through no fault of their own. Our heroes do the right things for - mostly - the right reasons, but are, on the whole, less interested in saving the world than saving their asses (and checking out one another's). Say one thing for Joe Abercrombie, he has never shied away from sharing his characters' feelz, and Half a World features two extremely introspective protagonists, both which manage to get to the reader on-side (even when they're fighting). Half a World feels like the author - arguably the most talented epic fantasist of the modern era - has settled in to his new world and new voice, and promises even better adventures to come.

Dia Reeves' Slice of Cherry (2011) is bizarre. Bizarro, even. In that gut-wrenching and genuinely disturbing way. This book crosses a lot of boundaries about how we see and feel and read about "girls", and how they are supposed to act - both in real life and in fictionalised variations thereof. Like the rather phenomenal Bleeding Violet, Slice of Cherry is brilliant because of its embrace of the unexpected: it does what it wants, rather than what you want it to do. I can't describe it any better than that.

Howard Pyle's Rejected of Men (1903) is a bit of an anomaly, and I genuinely can't stop thinking about it. Pyle is perhaps best known for his children's work - retellings of the Robin Hood legend and the like. Rejected of Men is kind of in that folklore vein, but not really: it is a retelling of the New Testament, but set as a work of contemporary fiction. Pyle has a clear thesis, which is that, actually, we're really hard on the ordinary folk of the Bible: they had a society, they had a system, they had an established religion and a way of understanding the world. And then someone rocked up - and not even glamorously, but surrounded by the dregs of society - and told them they were horribly wrong and would need to start over again. Pyle adds showing to his telling by following various members of the middle- and upper-classes as they largely ignore the coming of the messiah. As a novel, it is ok (unsurprisingly, a novel about people actively not doing stuff is pretty forgettable). But as a thought experiment, Rejected of Men is fascinating: not only declaring that history is written by the winners, but proving the point by choosing some very controversial losers to champion.

Honorable mentions to Robyn Schneider's The Beginning of Everything (2013) (excellent set-up, charmingly arch writing, an ending that was... unexpected), Erin Lange's Dead Ends (2013) (properly heart-warming and optimistic) and Morgan Matson's Since You've Been Gone (2014) (simultaneously extremely campy and guttingly realistic, would never have worked without the believable central character; would make a terrific movie). 

My October Un-Favourites

Holly Bourne's The Manifesto on How to Be Interesting (2014) is a another (and very grim) spin on the classic 'methodical reinvention' formula. See also: Can't Buy Me Love, Mean Girls. Familiar, but not bad. Where Manifesto let me down was with a proper deus ex machina ending, and I'm starting to get a little twitchy about YA books where the INTERNETZ save the day.

ARGHRachel Cohn and David Levithan's Dash and Lily's Book of Dares (2010) was excruciating. Two people - the oh-so-world-weary Dash and hyper-bouncy sugar-coated Lily - flirt by leaving one another increasingly hipsterish challenges in a notebook. They're united in the fact that they oh-so-don't-care about what anyone else thinks, and just, you know, live they way they want to, yeah? Dash's carefully-groomed-and-turtlenecked angst clashes with Lily's sparky-saccharine Christmas cheerleading. As they flirt by remote in a New York City populated by approximately two dozen zombified Christmas rom-com tropes, the reader wonders, 'Will they?' 'Won't they?' 'Maybe they'll get hit by a bus!' Sadly, they will. (That is, they will 'will' not 'they will get hit by a bus.') In any normal month, this would be my least favourite book. Sadly, I also read...

Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (2005) which was, somehow, even more annoying. In the case of Playlist, the book hit all the wrong buttons. And then hit them again. And then leaned on them, whilst humming whiny suburban punk music.

Again, we have two deeply unlikeable protagonists, living in the clutch of their own self-aggravated problems. But if Dash and Lilly at least had a week of cute (for them) flirting before discovering they were THE DEEPEST MOST PERFECT SOULMATES IN THE HISTORY OF EVER, Nick and Norah become one over the course of a single tumultuous evening. They discover their darkest weaknesses! Their secret strengths! They receive sage wisdom from quirky strangers! They talk until dawn! They do wacky things in public places! They chase after one another down streets! It is like watching twelve rom-coms at once whilst being waterboarded in Diet Mountain Dew.

Over and above my (obviously) subjective distate for pretty much every detail of these two books, I struggled with their basic premise. Even in a month where I read - literally - dozens of volumes of historical romance, these two books stood out for their cinematically-inspired predictability. Predictability is fine - but if the plot and its outcome are obvious from the start, the engagement needs to come from somewhere. In the case of Nick, Norah, Dash and Lily, the setting wasn't interesting (a My Little Hipster version of New York that was as loathsome as it was implausible) and the characters were unlikeable: tragi-comic bundles of hyperbolic quirks and un-cute neuroses. There's no reason to care for - much less cheer for - anyone involved. Which is to say: I didn't like these books very much.