This time it’s mostly adult fiction with a couple of YA novels, and two disability-related nonfiction titles. Many of these books are either just-published or scheduled for early next year. For those I recommend but that are not yet published I’ve added the month of publication to make it easier for you to preorder.
As usual I started many, many more than I finished because life is too short to waste on crap books. These are a few that I got through.
Once Upon a River, Diane Setterfield (Dec 2018)
Beautifully moody gothic set in what is probably the nineteenth century, with an omniscient narration which functions as an old-fashioned storyteller’s voice. It begins with the classic dark and stormy night: at an ancient inn, regulars settle by the fire to tell stories. But they are interrupted by the arrival of badly injured man holding a dead girl. Only the girl doesn’t stay dead… Setterfield captures the scent and ancient power of an old river in a landscape steeped in legend. This is history as a haunting, a crossover from superstition to science and back. Here, nature—what we can explain and what we don’t—is the main character with other characters feeling a little less sharp. I enjoyed it, mostly. But here’s the thing: I read it a couple of months ago and I don’t really remember the ending. That is, I don’t remember the heart, the how and why of the mystery. Which to me indicates a certain privileging of atmosphere over substance. So worth reading, I think, but a bit disappointing.
Elmet, Fiona Mozley (2017)
Like the Setterfield, this is a beautifully moody book but set on my home turf: the woods of Yorkshire today. It reminded me very much of Sarah Hall’s work: fine prose, an emphasis on landscape, and a curiously old-fashioned feel. Perhaps it’s the emphasis on the land, perhaps it’s the focus on the body in that land and how the two interact. But I don’t think so. I think it’s more that there are no cellphones, and all the needs are primal: food, shelter, sex, and belonging rather than the quotidian anxieties of 21st century life. None of the characters consider their education, or health, or insurance, or pensions. There’s more than a hint of the supernatural but, again, it feels nature-based. The young woman at the heart of the story is strong, physically and emotionally, but in the end she suffers the fate of many strong women in modern fiction: she chooses to sacrifice herself to save her loved ones. At least she takes others out with her.
The Priory of the Orange Tree, Samantha Shannon (February 2019)
The Priory of the Orange Tree is the Platonic Ideal of a fantasy novel. A rich and stirring tale of magic and queens, swords and dragons, assassins and sorcerers, it’s thronged with women: strong women and queer women, gorgeous women and powerful women, brilliant women and dangerous women. Men, too, of course. It’s a beautifully written story of good and evil, struggle and triumph, love and loss and return: complex but clear and utterly immersive. I loved this book. Go buy it.
Resistance and Hope, ed Alice Wong (2018)
17 essays from an incredibly diverse set of contributors which can be summed up as crip wisdom for the people: all people. Editor Alice Wong (my partner and co-host for #CripLit) began to put this anthology together right after the 2016 election when it became clear the US was in for a tough few years, especially for those of us who are marginalised, or doubly marginalised, or triply—or more. The powerful and power-hungry always come for the most vulnerable first, and disabled people have always been the most vulnerable. But we have learned many coping strategies over the millennia. Here are some of them.
(Don’t) Call me Crazy, ed Kelly Jensen (2018)
Subject of a recent Twitter chat (read the archive of that chat here). A marvellous nonfiction anthology of short pieces for YA readers about mental health with contributions from disability activists, writers, and those who are well-known in other walks of life: an actress, an Olympic medallist, and so on. Some of these pieces are hard to read, some are not. But all are worth reading, and all are clear and useful. Recommended for every teenager and young adult.
The Migration, Helen Marshall (March 2019)
This first novel (Marshall has published two award-winning collections of short fiction) has a lot in common with both the Setterfield and the Mozley, but in the end it’s more satisfying: clearer, cleaner, and much more hopeful. It follows two Canadian sisters who, after the younger is diagnosed with JI2—a strange new syndrome that appears to be a juvenile hormone-related immune disorder—move with their mother back to her roots in Oxford, UK. They move in with the mother’s sister who is a medievalist researching historical plagues like the Black Death and the plague of Justinian. As JI2 spreads and young people start to die, a series of unusual weather events reminds the aunt of events that preceded the Black Death. Rumours begin to circulate that those who die of JI2 don’t really die—but they are either cremated or spirited away for research so no one knows for sure. And then the younger sister dies, and the older sister, just diagnosed, has to make some excruciating choices.
It’s difficult to capture this novel in a single paragraph. It has echoes of Quatermass and the Pit, of the cosy catastrophes of John Wyndham, and the its-in-the-genes sweeping human change of Naomi Alderman’s The Power. It uses one of the oldest SF/F tropes there is, metamorphosis, to create a clear-eyed, clean-limbed parable of change which itself becomes a blazing emblem of the transcendent power of hope. If you worry about climate change and worry about young people today, read this book.
The Devil Aspect, Craig Russell (2019)
A historical psycho (psychology, psychotherapy, psychokiller) novel with Jack the Ripper overtones set in 1930s Czechoslovakia, complete with the threat of fascism and a louring ancient castle and torch-and-pitchfork-ready peasantry. Let me save you the trouble of reading it: the ending is exactly what you suspect it will be. About a third of the way through, I was so sure I knew the answer that I skipped to the end to check and, oh yep, no surprises here. Some fine books become even more delicious when you know the trajectory, but lesser books lose what little interest they had. This is one of them.
Elevation, Stephen King (2018)
This is a slight piece of work from King with a heavy-handed straight-male-saviour-of-queer-gals theme tacked onto a mystery of a man who gets lighter and lighter. Worth a read from the library, but not worth buying.
Holy Ghost, John Sandford (2018)
A Virgil Flowers novel that does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s the eleventh in the series, and this time Virgil is in a tiny town that has come up with an ingenious way of reinvigorating itself. Naturally, several people die. Equally naturally, Virgil solves the crimes in good-natured, easy-going style. So if you like the series, buy it. If you’re not familiar with these books yet, get it from the library and see what you think.
My Lovely Wife, Samantha Dowling (2019)
Another in the Gone Girl school of fiction: twisty psychological couples fiction. But like so very many other books of this type it only works if women are the victims. If you’re not yet tired of women being killed for entertainment then, hey, get it from the library. But I’d hate to see too many people encouraging more production of this stuff by putting money in the pockets of its author.
Deadfall, Stephen Wallenfels (2018)
This is a young adult American male echo of something like Elmet: all about the outdoors, and testing physical endurance and emotional family endurance. It clips right along, and although, yes, again, women are in fact sexually harmed in its production, that harm is not centre stage and mostly off the page, and men are harmed, too, this time on the page, in gendered though not sexually predatory ways. The moral of the story could be that rigid gender roles are evil, and it ends well, so worth a read.
War of the Wolf, Bernard Cornwell (2018)
I loved the first few novels about Uhtred of Bebbanburg, set in the late ninth and early tenth centuries. Even when he began to write them a bit fast, relying on the research done by others (in later books I recognised at least two incompletely digested lumps of source material), they still had an appealing vigour. But by this one, the eleventh in the series, that energy is flagging. It’s a very competent book, and if you’ve already invested in the first ten, worth reading. But if I’d encountered this one first I most probably would not have sought out the others.
After the Fire, Will Hill (2018)
Another YA, this time told from the viewpoint of a girl in alternating timelines. An armed US sect headed by a male guru who exploits women (as they do, in real life and in fiction). Well-researched and relatively realistic, with a well-earned ending. Would I recommend it? If you don’t have claustrophobia, yes. But if a tightly-wound weirdo compound and a tightly-wound federal/medical compound might make you feel, well, tightly wound, this isn’t for you.