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Friday Five: 5 Favourite Books of the Half Year

Sunlight PilgrimsSix month check-in! It has been a blissful productive year for reading, so I'm - of course - cheating this list with a lot of subcategories.

The only rule is that I've excluded rereads (which knocks out things like Neuromancer and Modesty Blaise, which, as we all know, are two of the bestest books ever).

Five Favourite 2016 Books So Far

Jenni Fagan's The Sunlight Pilgrims 

Glorious. Life and love and coming of age in a rural Scottish trailer park. While the world quietly dies. A lyrical book about apocalypses of all sizes and how people can be fragile - and strong - in so many different ways. (Tangent! Literally no one else agrees that the exquisite, brilliant, soul-shattering The Panopticon was SF. The setting of The Sunlight Pilgrims will definitely put an end to that. But, in the quest to annoy genre border-sentries of all shapes and sizes, I'm going to argue that TSP is Young Adult. Yes, that's wholly to do with one of the protagonists, Stella, being a kid, but,... it works. This is (or could be) 'issue YA', and Stella, who is mid-transition, is an inspiring, infuriating, inescapably charming character who steals the book.)

China Miéville's This Census Taker

A sort of We Have Always Lived in the Castle meets, uh, K. J. Parker?! Stylistically, Miéville and Parker are opposite ends of the spectrum, but there's something about the significance/omnipotence? of the bureaucratic title figure that feels splat in the middle of the Venn Diagram of both their thematic stylings. Miéville's probably the Actual Best Fantasy Author because you can genuinely engage with his books at any level. When I first read This Census Taker, I was exhausted and I wanted a book with a bit of mystery and a cool setting and a hint of monsters and, wham - Miéville delivers. But you can also go through and gleefully examine every single bit of meaning in this book, at a thousand levels of depth, because, damn - dude delivers.

hopeClare North's The Sudden Appearance of Hope

Clare North is doing Old Skool Science Fiction right. Take a single concept, extrapolate the hell out of it and see what happens. But whereas our Golden Age Mentors would've translated the core whatsit into Ways To Defeat Communism and Forge Galactic Empires, North's novels are far more personal. How does this thing, this concept, impact a single person - what does it mean to them, what is their life like, how do they eat and drink and love, what does it feel like? And with Hope, we're wrestling with the concept of invisibility. Cool, right? But not really - and not in a world where, as Hope explains, visibility is everything. What you look like, how you appear, how corporations and governments follow the trail you leave. You are your appearance - physical, cultural and digital. And being invisible isn't liberation: it is death. As with North's two previous books, Hope is alternately triumphant and heart-breaking, science fiction as it is meant to be.

Matthew Blakstad's Sockpuppet

Speaking of visibility - Sockpuppet will have you throwing your phone into the Thames. In a near future (or just another now, really), two women fight to find the truth... and to crawl out from the looming wreckage of their lives. One, a politician, is a strange sort of hero - passionate, but with a big ol' heap of 'mistakes' that make her hard to love. Worse, her passion is directed toward championing a - potentially misguided - new Government initiative: a mandatory digital service that will streamline services and aggregate data and Make Life Better. Our other hero is in a more Stephensonian mode, a gothy coder who wakes up to find that one of her pet bots has achieved sentience and is littering the internet with inflammatory political gossip. What the hell is going on?!

Brooke Magnanti's The Turning Tide

And, in fact, speaking further of visibility, The Turning Tide is a thriller about both the danger and the frisson of being in the public eye. Set against the backdrop of the Scottish Referendum, this is a thriller about murder, fraud and blackmail, with a diverse cast of quirky and oddly charming characters. Virtually everyone is a dastardly evil-doer of some sort, but that doesn't reduce their appeal. As funny as it is twisty, this is what would happen if you swapped Elmore Leonard's rum for a good whisky.

Five Favourite Non-2016 Books So Far

Succubus-BluesRichelle Mead's Succubus Blues (2007) 

Paranormal romance isn't a genre I know much about, but given how much I enjoyed Mead's Vampire Academy YA, I figured I'd give it a shot. And this book (and its sequels) is great. Georgina Kincaid, the titular succubus, is sneaky, fiery and brave. As a character, she's the perfect balance of someone that's both embracing her (supernatural) power and edging towards redemption. Plus, as with the Vampire Academy world, there's a complex and well-structured world, complete with all sorts of magic and cosmic pantheons and whatnot. Oh, and a fair amount of sex. Naturally. Really good fun. (Briefly reviewed earlier.)

Georgette Heyer's Frederica (1965)

Heyer remains one of my favourite discoveries (in that, 'Anne made me read them'). Frederica's the best I've read since The Nonesuch. Right combination of jaded (but warm-hearted) chap and clever (and utterly loveable) heroine. 

Ring Lardner's How To Write Short Stories (1924)

As part of a strange reading challenge (see below), I read this collection of Lardner. Previously, I only knew him from You Know Me, Al (in a Dover Thrift Edition, no less), which, although hilarious, is kind of one note humour. Here, we've got the whole damn symphony - from the genuinely bleak to the darkly comedic to the cheerful and chipper. Plus, more of his baseball stories; his own distinctive and, rather perfect, microcosm of America. The whole book is framed as yet another joke, and a particularly self-deprecating one. Introduced as a guide to writing, How to Write comes with advice that's just as useful today as it was a century ago. Plus, each story is framed in a totally bizarre, and completely erroneous way. Both puzzling and adorable.

Strange_EvilJane Gaskell's Strange Evil (1957) 

A young woman welcomes (reluctantly) her mysterious cousin to London, plus her handsome and enigmatic husband. They're strange and foreign, if well-meaning... and then Judith discovers that her relatives are even weirder (and Weirder) than they first appear. One thing leads to another and, whammo, she's in a sort of fairyland, smack in the middle of a fey revolution. 

Strange Evil is very period: the sort of slow-burning and somewhat-nonsensical mid-century British fantasy that eschews linear plotting or protagonists with agency. And the attention to detail is madly erratic, leading to a sort of narrative dilation where major plot points and pivotal moments are rushed, while insignificant minutae gets examined in detail. Judith, you feel, is often paying very close attention to the wrong things. But there's a vision behind it all, and the book somehow comes together as a masterpiece of the weird and uncanny. Moreover, the language is stunning. There's a glorious turn of phrase on every page, making this an unsettling and unforgettable book.

Elizabeth Sanxay Holding's The Blank Wall (1947)

You have no idea how hard this selection is. Anne got me this glorious, glorious set for the holidays last year. I've read the 1940s volume so far, and all four selections are geniuinely fantastic. I think The Blank Wall is probably my favourite? Right now? But then again, the Margaret Millar pick is brilliant, and Vera Caspary's Laura is truly terrific, and argh.

The Blank Wall is an excellently tense domestic noir, with a young woman trying to protect her family, despite - given the era - her lack of freedom, ability or trust. Her worldly daughter, precocious son and elderly father all muddle about in frustratingly condescending ways, whereas our protagonist works within her slim margin of agency to save them all. As with all the best noir, it is an exhausting read, as the characters' (justified) paranoia rubs off on the reader.

Bonus non-fiction selections: Dorothy Parker's A Month of Saturdays (1971) and Maajid Nawaz's Radical (2013)

ImgresFive Favourite Comics

Gene Yang's Boxers & Saints (2013) - On the Zot! scale, this is... really, the only one that comes close. Emotionally powerful, beautiful storytelling, absolutely gutting. Very similar to - and this is an odd comparison? - Patrick Ness's The Ask and The Answer, in the way that it addresses the horrors and perspectives of war on the personal level.

John Allison's Expecting to Fly (2014) - Another one that pinged on the Zot! scale - a bittersweet coming of age story with two kind-hearted, but messed-up, kids fumbling through life in a small town. The prequel to Scary Go Round (which I clearly need to read), this was lovely and surprising and... I'm not sure. A very optimistic hard luck story, if that makes any sense at all. (I've also started Allison's terrific Giant Days.)

Noelle Stevenson's Nimona (2015) - ALL THE CUTES. Actually, beneath ALL THE CUTES, this is a sneakily brilliant fantasy saga, complete with hero, villain and sidekick (and they change roles frequently). Adorably and giggly... except when it is devastating, Nimona creates a crazily powerful emotional attachment without ever being dour or heavy-handed.

Jeff Lemire's Descender (2015) - When did SF comics get good? Again? (Was there a first time?) But this is the most Saga-like comic I've read since Saga - epic, expansive, emotionally powerful. Recommendation from Jamie, who reviews it here.

Jim Starlin's Dreadstar (1980ish) (Omnibus 1) - Ok, another good SF comic. But in a different way. Pulpy and complicated, and surprisingly, exceedingly well-written - a masterclass of getting people into the action right away, and using world-building as/when needed.

AbbottFive Books That Make the Second Half of the Year Very Exciting

Sam Wilson's Zodiac 

M. Suddain's Hunters and Collectors

Becky Chambers' A Closed and Common Orbit

Megan Abbott's You Will Know Me

China Miéville's The Last Days of New Paris

Reading challenges

Not that anyone cares, but I've got three quasi-challenges going on.

First, I tend to bucket my reading into New / Oldish / Old. And, although I've kept the first two categories kind of even - I am terrible at Old so far this year. That said, I've got a ton of Gutenbergian goodies on my Kindle, so I'm one or two long flights from balancing things out.

Second, the SPFBO. That's been fun. And I think it'll wrap up just in time for the DGLA reading. It has slightly curtailed my other fantasy reading, but it is worth it. (Reading list.) (And on Amazon...)

Third, weirdly, I've been hunting down and reading all the books that Dorothy Parker really recommended in A Month of Saturdays. (Explanation!) (Reading list.) It has been really fun, and taken me down some strange paths (see: Ring Lardner, above). Double-fun: I've convinced my mom to do the same thing, and we've basically created the world's weirdest book club. 


Phew. You? Favourites? Old favourites? New favourites? Reading challenges? Share in the comments!