Books – fantasy/sci-fi

I’m going with a fairly loose definition of fantasy / science fiction here, so where there is doubt there may be some overlap with the “general fiction” page. Genre is always a slippery thing – don’t worry yer wee head about it!

bookstarBooks that I thought were outstandingly good are now marked with a gold star. That doesn’t mean some of the others aren’t good too, so please read the words I wrote!

rereadicon1And this icon means I’d already read this book at least once before, so that may inform my perspective on it.




Alderman, Naomi – The Power

The Power is really something. By that I mean, in spite of its flaws it is big and important and powerful – not only fierily relevant to right now, but possessing an assuredness that gives it the air of a classic in waiting. If you don’t know what it’s about: imagine a superhero story where all the women in the world get superpowers at once, and there’s your starting point. From there on, the book primarily focuses on four very distinct characters, and does a pretty slippery job of slithering out of any genre you try to cram it into. Dystopian… apocalyptic… sci-fi… action… political… satire? This uncertainty may be the biggest turnoff to some readers, but to me it is a strength. The Power is startling, disturbing, complicated, thought-provoking, and even catches you off guard with a laugh now and then. At times you might feel it’s taking shortcuts to get where it wants to go; you might wish it would zoom out to give you a broader overall picture of what’s going on in the world, or zoom in to explain some of the characters’ nuttier decisions. But even if you disagree with its message entirely (which I don’t) – well, you might rant about the things it gets wrong about people or politics or gender or biology, but you’re still talking about it; you’re raising your voice, and look, you’re digging your nails into the arm of your chair. Don’t tell me this isn’t art.




Atwood, Margaret – The Handmaid’s Tale

I read this for uni and reread it for book club. It portrays a deeply conservative future society called Gilead, where women like the narrator are forced to work as surrogate mothers in an attempt to counteract a spate of birth defects. This catastrophe seems to have flipped some awful switch in society’s attitudes towards gender: now it is commonly accepted that men can’t be trusted with the sight of female flesh, so women have to cover their bodies and faces; women can’t be trusted with independence, so they are not allowed to read or have money or walk outside alone. With the unflinching intelligence that seems to define her writing, Atwood dredges out the darkest prejudices that probably still lurk in more minds than we care to admit, and in classic dystopian style, creates a world that takes them to their logical, horrifying conclusions. Even if you don’t buy that a society like Gilead could ever really come about — well, first of all, based on historical precedents I would respectfully disagree — but also there is more than enough of our own world in here that it would be complacent not to feel uncomfortable.




Banks, Iain – The Bridge

I’m not a particular fan of using metaphor in place of plot, but my main problem is when narratives turn that way only at the end. I don’t mind when novels are open about their metaphorical intentions from the outset, and when they justify it by, for example, setting the metaphorical stuff inside a character’s mind. When a skilled author (and Iain Banks most certainly was that) takes the risk of going far enough down the rabbit hole of weird interlocking symbolism, the result can be quite thrilling and rewarding – a Cloud Atlas style puzzle box to toy with at your leisure. The Bridge is a bit like a cross between Life on Mars and Brazil, a journey into a complicated and unsettling world of steam power and bureaucracy where it’s not always clear what’s a dream – and what’s a dream within a dream. Even if the way it all fits together confuzzles you, there are enough treats along the way – the cleverly confounding world of the bridge, the hilarious barbarian bits, the ever-lively descriptive style – to make this a journey worth taking.

The Hellbound Heart Barker, Clive – The Hellbound Heart

Similar to the few Lovecraft stories I’ve read, The Hellbound Heart is content to reveal only slivers of its distinctly unsettling mythology. Sinister, leering forces beyond our understanding lurk just out of sight behind the walls of the world, waiting for any excuse to drag victims off to their realm of disfigurement and myriad kinky torments/pleasures. There are nuggets of gold in the story: the unseen realm is described with enough vagueness to give the reader’s imagination something to do; Barker makes a clever and creepy use of brackets which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before but which I am sorely tempted to steal; and the ending is quite darkly beautiful if not entirely earned. Overall, though, I don’t know that I would recommend The Hellbound Heart. From plot to character to style, it all feels rather slight, like a short story stretched out to the length of a short novel. But hey, at least it’s short, and inventive enough that perhaps you should read it anyway if you’re into oddness.

Tithe Black, Holly – Tithe

A modern faerie tale, in which misfit teenager Kaye moves back to the place she grew up and rediscovers the realm of faeries she used to play with. But it all seems a lot darker now, as conflict rages between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts and the solitary fey caught in the middle. If it sounds like Among Others, I suppose it is a bit, though this is more standard Young Adult fare, complete with a love story I’m probably not qualified to comment on so I’ll just shut up. Despite my love of fantasy, when it is mixed into the real world I often find myself enjoying the real world stuff more. Tithe is no exception – I like Kaye’s world before all the weird stuff kicks off, and said weird stuff is imaginative and vividly drawn, but I was never quite sold on the tricky ground where they meet. I suppose if characters always reacted with appropriate levels of surprise and bewilderment, a lot of fantasy would just be about people quivering and wailing in corners. Somebody needs to write that book some day.

150-SomethingWicked Bradbury, Ray – Something Wicked This Way Comes

The creepy story of a malevolent carnival that shows up on the outskirts of a little American town and begins to exert some dark influence on the inhabitants. It reminded me a lot of Neil Gaiman, to the point that I’d be quite surprised if he didn’t read this at some formative stage of his development. It also gave me unexpected flashbacks to reading Goosebumps as a child, though this is definitely more grown-up, and some of the horrors a little more abstract and existential than R. L. Stine’s tended to get. Reading it, I always felt a few steps behind the story, struggling to keep track of what was going on as Ray Bradbury danced around pulling ribbons out of everything like the conjurer he undoubtedly was. Something Wicked is stuffed with brilliant images and ideas, but ironically I may not be quite enough of a grown-up to fully appreciate it.

Brooks, Max – World War Z

Zombie fiction is kinda strange. From my limited exposure to it, I get the sense that works like The Walking Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Left 4 Dead and other things ending in Dead are not just about a zombie epidemic – they’re about the zombie epidemic. It’s like we’ve all agreed it’s going to happen at some point, and a bunch of people are writing stories that slot right into it: historical fiction for a made-up history. This book provides a seemingly exhaustive collection of well-thought-out personal and political stories that span the globe. I really hope that in the film adaptation, the protagonist is still humanity as a whole – that would be a lot more interesting than one handsome white American battling his way through zombies to reunite with his family.

Storm Front Butcher, Jim – Storm Front

One of those troubling books where the author was younger than me when he wrote it. I was constantly on the lookout for clues to this fact to make myself feel better, but sadly this is a very well structured and enjoyable urban fantasy detective noir thriller thingy. It grips you through the old technique of piling problems upon problems, never resolving one without introducing two more. Poor old yer-a-wizard-Harry Dresden is never allowed a pause for breath without being bludgeoned with a blunt object or attacked by a demon or pounced upon by one of the book’s many femme fatales, so the pace is always fast and pleasingly silly. And you can feel the author setting up a world fit for the many sequels the book already has – it’s one of those series that it’s nice to know is there in case I need something pulpy and fun to binge on.




Clarke, Susanna – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

A wonderful, sprawling story about a bunch of English gentlemen who call themselves magicians, in an alternate history where magic used to exist but seems to have faded almost entirely from human knowledge. In the fashion of a nineteenth-century novel it moves quite slowly, and is a massive doorstop of a book, but the sort of doorstop you can get lost in; the footnotes and historical details make the most unlikely things feel chillingly authentic. There were points when I felt as though I was reading a new Harry Potter, which is a compliment I can’t extend to many books. There’s something about the combination of vividly drawn characters, the slow reveal of a mysterious magical world, and the sheer boundless imagination and unpredictability of the story, that fills me with inexpressible glee. Probably my favourite book I’ve read for at least a couple of years.

Ready Player One


Cline, Ernest – Ready Player One

A book about escaping from a ruined world into a virtual easter-egg hunt created by an eccentric dead billionaire obsessed with 80s geek culture … and if that sounds like the ultimate piece of escapism for nerds, that’s because it pretty much is. But as much as that description appeals to me, it still feels like it does a disservice to the tight structure and vivid imagination of this book. There’s a real sense of adventure here, of danger, wonder and magic – a tone somewhere between Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Hunger Games, if that makes any sense at all, which it really doesn’t seem to when I put it like that. Trust me, it’s great. And it’s such a massively joyful and unapologetic celebration of geek culture that even I, as someone who often feels too weird and awkward to even be a proper part of the geek community, was practically hyperventilating at certain points. In a good way.

The Hunger Games cover.


Collins, Suzanne – The Hunger Games

Since it’s the big young adult thing at the moment, and I have an unhealthy love of dystopias, it seemed to make sense to read this. It has some very Harry Potter-esque characters (specifically Haymitch and Effie), and a few (thankfully vague) similarities to the novel I’ve been writing for years. Most of all, though, it reminds me of the creepingly delightful Wind on Fire trilogy by William Nicholson, which portrays an equally brutal world where just because you’re young and innocent doesn’t mean you won’t at some point find yourself being burned alive. Does it say bad things about me that I enjoy this kind of book? Probably. I guess that’s part of the scary thing: you’re always secretly thinking “I’d totally watch the actual Hunger Games if they were on”. No? Just me then? Oh dear.

Catching Fire cover Mockingjay cover Collins, Suzanne – Catching Fire and Mockingjay

The thing I’m most jealous of about the Hunger Games trilogy (aside from it making loads of money) is Collins’s talent for creating powerful symbols and visual moments. These books deal a lot with appearances, performance, even fashion, and the influence these things might have. They also do an admirable job of portraying the darkness of the world while retaining faith in humanity. I sort of wish I’d read this series in time to include it in my dissertation, as it’s a very well-crafted dystopia.



Connolly, John – The Book of Lost Things

I went into this book sceptical. While I enjoy fairytales, I feel like we’ve reached a point where the subversion of them is the norm, and the truly subversive thing to do would be to write some new ones instead of endlessly repurposing the ones we have. But The Book of Lost Things is an artifact of such power that this criticism melts before impact. It opens starkly, as the young protagonist loses his mother in some of the most painful pages I’ve read in recent memory. From there on, the story is effed up in all the ways you want a fairytale to be effed up, and possibly a couple more. The Crooked Man is a fantastically shudder-inducing villain, and he’s far from the only threat: poor David encounters unsettlingly human wolves, harpy-harpooning trolls, insanely twisted huntresses, massive burrowing beasts and more. It’s all most pleasing if you miss those incident-riddled “point A to point B” adventures in the vein of The Hobbit. At its core is a pretty simple message about the value of love, but most messages are simple when you boil them down far enough; I’ll be quite content if every book I ever write conveys the same message, even happier if one of them does so with as much craft and beauty as this gem.


Danielewski, Mark Z – House of Leaves

It’s immediately obvious to those of us who like to flick through books before reading them to get the lay of the land that this is an unusual book. So I approached it like Clarice approaching Hannibal Lecter, knowing it was going to try to screw with my mind. It’s just a bunch of words on pages, I told myself! Then I got to page 26 and decided “Okay, this can be my daytime book”. Despite the fact that it’s undeniably inventive and creepy, I’m not totally sure I like House of Leaves. This may be down to unfortunate timing: certain passages felt like a slog as they reminded me a little too much of reading impenetrably endless theory for my recently finished English degree. But if you’re patient and like weird things, this is certainly one of those.

150-AScannerDarkly Dick, Philip K. – A Scanner Darkly

I think the best way I can describe this book is as a strangely enjoyable exploration of paranoia and uncertainty. It’s no rollercoaster; the plot – relating to the life of a man leading a double life as a drug addict and an anonymous agent investigating, well, mainly himself – sidles along at a leisurely pace, taking in the entertainingly mundane conversations of its drug-addled characters, philosophical musings on identity, and explanations of scientific curiosities relating to the structure of the human brain. Already I can barely remember any actual plot points, but that’s not really a criticism, since I remember it being pretty consistently interesting and funny. I definitely need to read more Philip K. Dick. Also – though it is entirely coincidental that I read them back to back – someone could write a good essay comparing this book to Fight Club. To avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it to you to figure out why.

150-EllaMinnowPea Dunn, Mark – Ella Minnow Pea

Ella Minnow Pea is set on a small island whose residents, for reasons too convoluted to go into here, find themselves having to express themselves in an ever-shrinking alphabet. As they do so, their classical letter-writing eloquence is replaced by a different sort of eloquence, as they bend language in all manner of creative ways to get around the new rules. This leads to some laugh-out-loud moments and genuinely ingenious constructions — and a funny sort of slasher movie thrill, as we anticipate which letter may be killed off next. While the island’s slide into tyranny is interesting (beginning with what seems a quirky and inconsequential ruling, ending with neighbours grassing on each other, Nineteen Eighty-Four style), there is not much of an emotional thread, and the ending is perhaps a bit too quick and neat to be entirely satisfying. Still, this is an enjoyable example of what a storyteller can do when s/he makes the very deliberate decision to discard realism – there’s a lot of cool stuff that can only be done without that millstone around your neck.


Sum: Tales from the Afterlives Eagleman, David – Sum: Tales from the Afterlives

A book I happened to pick up because it was 99p on Kindle, and I’m glad I did. It’s a series of short stories detailing different imagined afterlives. Few of them involve us being judged by the criteria of any existing religion; instead there is an implied new religion to be found embedded in each story. In other words, we could choose to live our lives based on the assumption that any one of these accounts is true; if we believe ‘Metamorphosis’, for example, we may want to spend the latter years of our lives systematically erasing all evidence that we ever existed. If you think you have a good sci-fi idea tucked away in your brain, it’s worth reading this book just to see if David Eagleman has already written about it. Damn you ‘Conservation’! (On a related note, here is another thought-provoking afterlife story, which seems to do the rounds on the internet every so often.)


The Eyre Affair cover Fforde, Jasper – The Eyre Affair

I’m not sure I have the vocabulary to talk about this book, because it’s really unique, in a wish-I’d-thought-of-that way. It’s set in an alternate version of our world, distinguished by casually deployed science fiction elements and amusing differences in its culture’s priorities. In terms of tone it veers from a Monty Python-ish blending of surrealism and satire to Terry Pratchett-esque fantasy to one of those cosy detective stories where people knit and eat Hobnobs and have names like Marmalade Jones. I won’t spoil too much, as it’s a fun rollercoaster – especially if you happen to have studied literature. Also a good antidote to Hunger Games-induced depression.

150-TheMachineStops Forster, E. M. – The Machine Stops

I won’t lie: I read this partly because it’s short and I needed another book to achieve my Goodreads reading target for 2015. But it had been sitting on my shelf since I was writing my dissertation on dystopias four years ago, so it was probably about time I got round to it. It has that odd combination of qualities that old books set in imagined futures tend to have: a few really prescient aspects combined with stuff that now comes across as rather over-the-top and silly. But the prescient stuff hits home far more than I am comfortable with, especially since that home for me consists primarily of a small room in which I spend most of my time staring at various screens, talking to my friends (and strangers – hello to both!) via technology. Worth a read for those interested in partially fulfilled, concerned-frown-inducing dystopian prophecies.


American Gods


Gaiman, Neil – American Gods

I’m pretty sure I’m a person who should have been reading Neil Gaiman for years, but somehow I’ve only just got round to him. He’s one of those writers who crams an intimidating number of ideas into a small space, casually glancing off concepts which in other hands would be whole books of their own. American Gods is a weird one, though. I certainly enjoyed the American part – the slightly unsettling small towns, the tacky tourist attractions, the road movie flavour of it all. But I found the Gods part a bit baffling, to be honest. Almost every character speaks in riddles, and even the appropriately named shadowy protagonist doesn’t often stop to question the barrage of barely explained insanity that confronts him at every turn. The ending, especially, gets a bit metaphorical for my tastes, as physical reality fades into the background and people do all sorts of very symbolic-seeming things for no clear reason (don’t ask me why I let Murakami get away with it). Maybe I don’t know enough mythology to untangle it all, or maybe this book is just for people cleverer than me. I’m happy to confirm that Neil Gaiman is definitely one of those people.

Note: since writing this review I have now reread this book and both liked and understood it a lot more. So I’m giving it a star. Just ignore past Alex up there. He doesn’t know what he’s on about.

150-thegraveyardbook Gaiman, Neil – The Graveyard Book

Don’t think I’m obsessed with Harry Potter or anything, but The Graveyard Book has a lot of Potter about it: a boy grows up in unusual, magical surroundings, has a series of episodic adventures, and gradually learns more about his past and the shadowy man who murdered his parents. Of course, as it is only a single, fairly short book, it doesn’t have quite the same impact, but there is a lot crammed into these eight chapters. I enjoyed the dense, self-contained world of the graveyard, with its underground tombs, weird dream-like other planes and ghostly characters from across the sweep of history. On reflection, a few aspects of the ending strike me as cheap ways to stir up readers’ emotions while checking some generic coming-of-age boxes along the way – but they still gave me a bit of a tingle, so I guess Neil Gaiman knows what he’s doing. I only wish I could get my brain to stop trying to make literal sense of his work, because it does tend to put a bit of distance between me and his beautifully crafted worlds.



Gaiman, Neil – Neverwhere

In Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman invents a world under London which bears the same sort of resemblance to the actual city that the London Underground map does – twisted into different shapes, abstracted, making unexpectedly literal sense of some of the odder station names on the tube network. This is a world of rats and labyrinthine sewer tunnels and people in ragged clothes, scraping out a living in their own vaguely supernatural world, unseen by people above. The story rolls along merrily, sweeping likeably vague and vaguely likeable protagonist Richard Mayhew along with it. We rarely return to the same place twice, as Gaiman seems determined to introduce us to as many surreal sights as possible in the time he has. He is never overly concerned with explaining how things came to be or the rules that govern magic in his world, if indeed there are any rules other than “it has to be weird and cool”. I alternate between finding this enthralling and a little hard to swallow, but overall I’d have had to be quite devoted to depriving myself of fun, to avoid falling under Neverwhere‘s spell.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Gaiman, Neil – The Ocean at the End of the Lane

This connected with me more than the other Neil Gaiman books I’ve read. This may be because there are specific details (not the really dark stuff, thankfully) that matched so precisely with my own experience that they reached through the page (well, Kindle screen, to be less poetic) and put me right there in the shoes of the seven-year-old protagonist. As well as featuring a classic Gaiman world-within-our-world (or is our world within their world?), The Ocean at the End of the Lane is beautifully evocative of childhood. There is a powerful sense of adulthood as mysterious and full of secret knowledge, which is then dwarfed by a similar but much grander sense about the hidden world the main character stumbles into, which just goes to show that growing up isn’t all that children think it is. You’ll notice I’ve said very little about the actual storyline. That’s because this is one of those stories that feels almost destined to become an iconic and canonical work of fantasy, and if you have the chance to go into it without knowing anything, you probably should take it.

150-SmokeAndMirrors Gaiman, Neil – Smoke and Mirrors

If there’s an unsettling way to blend the everyday and the mythical, Neil Gaiman has probably thought of it. Even his novels can read like short story collections sometimes, as he crams ideas into every available space until I can barely keep up with them all. So in some ways, an actual short story collection is an ideal format for him. The styles contained in Smoke and Mirrors are wildly diverse: there are stories written in iambic pentameter and other forms of verse; there are stories which achieve (for me at least) an almost T. S. Eliot level of incomprehensibility (I’m looking at you, ‘Cold Colours’). And then there are my favourites, which are essentially modern fairytales: ‘Troll Bridge’ and ‘The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories’ spring to my mind as highlights. Also worthy of note is the amount of disturbing, gruesome and sexual stuff going on in these pages, meaning you should only buy this book for your granny if your granny is exceptionally awesome. (In my case this book was a gift from an exceptionally awesome friend.)

150-themagicians Grossman, Lev – The Magicians

A most peculiar book. It contains a lot of what I expected it to contain, and much that I didn’t expect at all. In truth it feels rather like two or three different books smooshed together in a sort of culturally aware exploration of various facets of the fantasy genre. Most obviously it evokes Harry Potter and Narnia, with a dash of D&D and perhaps a pinch of Wonderland. The trouble, for me, is that this makes the world feel inconsistent, to some extent lacking in its own identity, and it’s never quite clear how all the pieces fit together. The characterisations are also odd; Quentin Coldwater, while I think he is intended to be moody, can be dickish in quite a bizarre and jarring way, and some of the others don’t feel fully fleshed out. But I’m sounding a little more negative than I intended, so allow me to pivot: there are some incredibly cool moments in The Magicians, some highly imaginative feats of magic, and some genuinely clever thematic material dealing with what it might mean to be able to do anything, to get what you have always dreamed of and still be unhappy. If heady concepts are what you want from a fantasy and you’re willing to go on a slightly bumpy ride to get your fix, this book may be for you.




Harkaway, Nick – Angelmaker

A remarkable comic adventure thriller vaguely-science-fiction almost-fantasy novel, whose setting feels so unique that you occasionally have to remind yourself it’s actually set in a version of our world. But it’s the parts of our world we don’t see – undercover government organisations, the (literal) criminal underworld of London, the lairs of impressively evil Bond-esque supervillains, and generally the domain of people otherwise unable or unwilling to fit into normal society, perhaps due to their ridiculous names. Central among them is Joe Spork, son of a notorious/celebrated gangster, grandson of a quiet artisan specialising in clockwork, himself uncertain of which way to go. His inevitable journey of self-discovery begins when a retired spy named Edie Banister decides to use him to set in motion a chain of events that will threaten the whole world in an entirely original and unsettling way. What follows is a rich brew of cheerfully over-the-top characters, imaginative action sequences, witty writing and fascinating, often dark thematic material. Nick Harkaway is definitely a writer to watch and be fiercely jealous of.

150-emperoroftheeightislands Hearn, Lian – Emperor of the Eight Islands

Comparisons to Game of Thrones get throne (sorry) around a lot at the moment, mostly by people who seem to think George R. R. Martin invented fantasy. But in this case, the comparison (drawn by my very fantasy-literate friend Alanna) is apt. In Hearn’s novel, a diverse bunch of point-of-view characters with various claims to various lands and titles go on long, meandering journeys back and forth across a Japanese-inspired empire, occasionally bumping into each other when they’re not busy being abruptly killed off. Most notably, we follow boy hero Shikanoko as – before our very eyes – he is shaped into a legendary figure by forces largely beyond his control, and at points it’s hard not to wonder if he may ultimately turn out to be the bad guy. The style is simple and elegant, the characters interestingly conflicted, the way magic works imaginative and very distinct from fantasy books with a more western setting – here, magical power seems primal, bound together with death, birth and sex. Another similarity to Thrones: this volume is far from a standalone book, and relies on its yet-to-be-released sequel to resolve most of its plots.


Hobb, Robin – Assassin’s Apprentice

Pure, delicious, sit-back-and-let-it-consume-you fantasy. Not exactly the action-packed quest I went in expecting, but a leisurely-paced tale set mostly in and around Buckkeep, the home of the royal family of the Six Duchies, with all the intrigue and tensions you’d hope for from such a setting – along with an almost ludicrous quantity of dogs. Our mild-mannered protagonist FitzChivalry has many sides: half royal, half not, raised as a stable-boy, now a controversial figure in the royal court, now secretly training to be an assassin, and all while trying to rein in his Wit, a telepathic connection he feels with animals which his lovably gruff guardian Burrich insists is Against the Natural Order of Things. Some of the early chapters rang a little more innocent and wholesome than the fare my cynical adult brain is used to, but either I adjusted to this or it got darker and twistier as it went along. Either way, by the middle I’d resigned myself to picking up the entirety of Robin Hobb’s catalogue in future, so I suspect all of it was doing important work somewhere in the back rooms of my brain.


Hobb, Robin – Royal Assassin

If you read and liked Assassin’s Apprentice, I’d be rather confused if you didn’t like this at least as much. Again things move slowly, but it is a purposeful kind of slow, the methodical construction of a grand story by a writer who knows exactly what she’s doing. And again, Fitz spends much of the book just to-ing and fro-ing at Buckkeep, making friends, getting into trouble, losing friends, patching up his mistakes as best he can, regaining friends, uncovering treacheries, making enemies and generally spinning plates to try to balance his many disparate responsibilities, as some of them come into painful conflict with each other. As in Rowling or Rothfuss, we feel each of the protagonist’s triumphs as a triumph of our own, each of his failings as a sinking in our stomachs. This, to me, is what’s somewhat lacking in the more relentlessly grimdark fantasy of nowadays. It’s all very well constantly slaughtering characters in gruesome ways, but if you don’t establish them as people worth caring about, how much impact does that really have? It’s not all subtle character moments though; towards the end of this volume, things get so intense that your well-intentioned plans to take a break and read something else before starting the third book may go a-circlin’ right down the toilet. Mine did, anyway.


Hobb, Robin – Assassin’s Quest

A bit of a departure from the previous two books – if you’ve finished book two you’ll have some idea why. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot more travelling in this one, taking us far away from familiar faces and into uncharted territory. It’s refreshing, though a childish part of me (the part that desperately yearned for Hogwarts throughout Deathly Hallows) just wanted Fitz to get back to Buckkeep and for everything to be the way it was. This yearning probably aligned my own feelings quite closely with Fitz’s, so maybe Robin Hobb planned it that way. Again, as I’m drawn deeper into her world, it’s hard not to suspect that she plans her readers’ every blink, since she clearly understands storytelling on a level beyond our lowly three-dimensional plane. Okay, I did put this book down for a while in the middle, as I was slowing down and needed to read other things – but she probably planned for that too, as when I came back I was all the way back into the adventure within pages. As a conclusion to the trilogy Assassin’s Quest delivers both epic moments and a few good twisting knives to the gut, but on another level all three books still feel somewhat like an introduction to Hobb’s world. Well, I’m perfectly fine with that. I have a feeling I’ll be staying here a while.


150-TheHauntingOfHillHouse Jackson, Shirley – The Haunting of Hill House

The opening of Hill House is strong – we get to bask in some quite beautiful language, get to know (and in my case like) Eleanor and her flights of fancy, and are introduced to a promisingly crooked house that seems to ooze potential for horror. But I was a little disappointed from there on. It’s not that I expected modern pacing and in-your-face nightmarish horror a la The Conjuring. I expected subtlety, but not subtlety so subtle that towards the end I didn’t understand the characters’ motivations at all, or much care what happened to them. Perhaps I need to read this book again with my subtlety dial turned up, as other people’s reactions to it make me want to get more from it than I did. It’s a shame, but I guess horror is an incurably subjective genre – it scares you or it doesn’t.


King, Stephen – The Gunslinger

The first in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger takes a while to show its hand. Much of the book is a fairly standard, if wild west-tinged fantasy, a lonely trek across a wasteland, not entirely dissimilar to the postapocalyptic minimalism of The Road. And I won’t give away too much (not that I feel like I know everything, not by a long shot) but if after the first few chapters your concern is that the whole series is going to be this and nothing more… I think I can say with some confidence, it’s not. That’s not to say I’m totally sold on the series yet; this does very much feel like an introductory volume, in which before our eyes the impish author weaves a rug, tells us to stand on it, then immediately pulls it out from under us to reveal what the series really is. I’d forgive people for feeling annoyed. But after – well, after that bit where it gets all crazy, you know the bit if you’ve read it – I can’t help it: I want to know more, even if I’m not especially in love with the characters or the style of writing. Maybe I’ll just read book two and see if that answers anything… (And that’s how he gets you.)



King, Stephen – The Shining

Maybe my favourite horror book I’ve ever read. Not so much because it terrified me (though a couple of scenes gave it a bloody good go) but because it’s so crammed with cool creepy stuff that it almost feels like the ultimate haunted house story. Going in, I had only a vague knowledge of the plot: man takes job as winter caretaker at isolated hotel, man stays there alone with man’s family, man’s mind deteriorates, bad stuff happens. But there is more to it than that, apparently more than is in the film too. The history of the Overlook Hotel is deep and rich, the apparitions that dwell there enjoyably malevolent, and young Danny’s psychic abilities add an extra dimension to the characterisations. A couple of nits I couldn’t help picking: the third-person narrator can be pointlessly lascivious towards female characters at times, and there is some stuff involving a man dressed as a dog which I’m not too happy about from my modern, tediously PC standpoint, but at most those are small blemishes on a big, impressive novel, and ones I’m willing to overlook (sorry) for the love of a good ghost story.


150-SkulduggeryPleasant Landy, Derek – Skulduggery Pleasant

It’s been a while since I read a book aimed squarely at children, and I picked this up for a bit of light fantasy escapism (and because I was worried that my current novel featuring a walking skeleton might be ripping it off — seriously). It has definite shades of Neverwhere and of Harry Potter: magical things are going on behind the scenes of our world! Evil sorcerers are plotting to obtain ancient artifacts! But there are also some neat original ideas, two memorable central characters and more wit and style than most books aimed at the older YA market. My only worry is that even this first volume of the series burns through a hell of a lot of plot — sometimes too fast for us to feel its full impact, sometimes with an excessive focus on fight scenes. I’m interested to dip into the sequels and see if they develop in a way that appeals to me — I can see that going either way, to be honest.

150-TheLeftHandOfDarkness Le Guin, Ursula K. – The Left Hand of Darkness

As indicated by the otherworldly spires on the cover, this is a proper juicy old-school science fiction novel, of the sort you feel you should read a musty second-hand paperback of – but I bought the Kindle version because that’s the boring future we’ve ended up in. The Left Hand of Darkness follows an envoy from the Ekumen, a loose interplanetary union, responsible for making first contact with the inhabitants of the icy planet of Gethen. The most unique feature of this strange new world is its genderless society, in which people are neither male nor female, but temporarily take on the biological characteristics of one sex or the other for mating purposes. The oddest feature about the book, meanwhile, is that this feels almost irrelevant to the actual events that transpire. The story functions more as a guided tour of Gethen than as a particularly thorough exploration of the themes it touches upon. I suspect that, at the time of writing, even touching upon these themes was pretty radical, and I have to respect Le Guin for that – as well as for her elegant writing style and, of course, the sheer breadth of her imagination.


150-CompanyOfLiars Maitland, Karen – Company of Liars

An interesting and very readable novel that takes us on a journey through Medieval England, as a ragtag band of people decide to travel together in an attempt to escape the encroaching plague, and another, less earthly threat that begins to stalk them. The most memorable of these characters, aside from the moral but inscrutable narrator, are the exceedingly creepy horror-child Narigorm, and the consistently objectionable, intolerant, hypocritical, whinging, sexist, racist bully Zophiel, who somehow manages to be dislikeable in quite an enjoyable way, and therefore not actually as dislikeable as he really ought to be. As it is set at a time when elaborate superstition pervaded society in place of science and rationalism, this book made me empathise with non-scientific ways of thinking in a way I hadn’t before, and gave me a clearer (whether entirely accurate or not) sense of Medieval England than any history lesson could. Despite the memorable characters and intriguing plot, I think that’s the main thing I’ll take away from Company of Liars.



Mandel, Emily St. John – Station Eleven

Wonderful isn’t the first word that comes to mind when I think of post-apocalyptic fiction, but it fits this book in a very literal way. Station Eleven is full of wonder at our modern civilisation – which in the story has recently fallen to a deadly flu virus – and at the things the scattered few survivors have lived through and lost. It is a winding, non-linear tale about people trying to hold on to bits of the past, fragments of a world that is rapidly fading from living memory into the realm of myth – and at the centre of it all is the Travelling Symphony, a troupe who play music and perform Shakespeare for those other survivors who want a taste of the world that was. The sheer ambition, the interlocking mysteries and the incredible care with which every word has been chosen all remind me of a David Mitchell book, and make me happy to jot down Emily St. John Mandel’s name below his on my shortlist of authors to read everything by. (Side note: the audiobook performance by Jack Hawkins is exceptionally evocative, and will give you shivers like you’re huddled by a big fire in a log cabin out in the snowy woods, even when you’re just popping to Tesco for cat food.)


Martin, George R. R. – A Game of Thrones

I love fantasy. I don’t quite know why. It can take a little effort even to work out what’s fantasy about A Game of Thrones (a lot of the usual “fantasy” elements are confined to old stories and vague superstitions in Martin’s world), but for some reason the mere fact that it’s set in a history other than our own makes it massively more appealing to me. Already I feel bad that I know and care more about the power struggle between the Starks, Lannisters, Targaryens, Baratheons etc. than about most of real history. This book weaves together short, to-the-point sentences (which I could stand to learn from) into an intricate tapestry that’s consistently unpredictable and exciting. If you like the TV show and are wondering if it’s worth reading the book, my answer is an emphatic yep. If I gave out MoleThrower Book of the Month awards, this would win the one for May 2012. But I don’t, so it can’t. Sorry George. Ah, he’ll get over it.

150-AClashOfKings Martin, George R. R. – A Clash of Kings

The story told in this volume is more complex and subtle than that in A Game of Thrones, and it feels to me that it makes more sense as a novel than as a season of TV. This time around, the viewpoint characters are kept apart to a large extent, placing more importance on an almost impossibly large supporting cast who are more easily developed on the page than on the screen. It moves slowly at first, like the creaking gears of a massive machine, but it is in this book that the sheer scale of both the world and the story become clear: new locations are revealed, all described in beautiful detail; Shakespearean characters hatch devious plots, betray each other and desperately thrash around to escape the impossible situations they end up in; bloody battles are fought; old dark powers continue their slow, spine-tingling return to Westeros. I can’t even begin to imagine how Martin mapped all this out, but presumably he’s keeping a Post-it note shop in business somewhere.

A Storm of Swords


Martin, George R. R. – A Storm of Swords

Martin’s intimidatingly ambitious fantasy series only grows more intimidatingly ambitious in its third entry. If A Clash of Kings felt a little too much like several related but mostly separate narratives, A Storm of Swords weaves many of them back together in often unexpected ways. I enjoyed the first two books, but this one feels as if it’s firing on all cylinders, burning the fuel provided by the many diverse elements introduced in books one and two. Or perhaps it was me who changed, who finally realised I knew enough about Martin’s world to get by, that I didn’t need to keep track of the names and sigils of all the minor houses to appreciate the story. Either way, this is my favourite so far. Despite being big enough to justify splitting into two volumes, Swords feels tight, almost every chapter acting like a satisfying short story, beginning and ending in exactly the right places. There are too many highlights to mention; the latter half especially is a rollercoaster, crammed with an almost absurd number of twists and turns, not to mention an impressive body count.

The Road McCarthy, Cormac – The Road

One of the bleaker post-apocalypses I’ve visited. No bands of sassy, leather-clad, punky-haired, gun-toting survivors banding together and forging unlikely alliances here. And that’s not all McCarthy has jettisoned: there is no cautionary narrative about the events leading up to the apocalypse; even speech marks and character names are done away with, which lends the proceedings an odd, lonely, distant flavour. Conversations are stark, brief and clipped, occasionally veering towards the dark absurdity of Beckett’s Endgame. I suppose there is some of the Slaughterhouse-Five sense of there being no plots left to tell in this sort of insane situation – no heroes, no victories to be achieved, very little hope of rebuilding society. But The Road‘s protagonists at least have an iron will to survive, even if it’s not always clear why they would want to. It is the small details of their struggle which are the most powerful, and which truly make us ache for them to stumble upon the brighter world we feel they must surely have earned by now.



Mitchell, David – The Bone Clocks

Had this been my first David Mitchell book, it would have totally astounded me. But having already got my “wow, this is a writer of unworldly talent” moment out of the way, I just enjoyed Bone Clocks a whole damn lot. As in Cloud Atlas, the story is told in six sections, all very different in terms of setting, character and style. We begin in 1984 with teenager Holly Sykes running away from home and stumbling upon something huge and incomprehensible, and as we traverse the other sections we gradually begin to comprehend it. The threads that connect everything are a little less oblique than in Cloud Atlas, once we get past some enjoyable misdirection: at the start of each new section it can take a little while to find the main storyline again. I can see this putting some people off, but I just found it tantalising, and besides, the writing is so good that I could happily soak in it for hours even if it didn’t go anywhere. There’s a great deal more that I don’t want to give away, but if you are in the mood for a big, juicy, mysterious, beautiful book full of vivid language, interesting and amusing characters, grand metaphysical themes, and so many moving parts you could spend weeks taking them to pieces and admiring their intricacies – yep, this is one of those all right.

Cloud Atlas


Mitchell, David – Cloud Atlas

It’s hard to describe this book without descending into metaphor: it’s a rollercoaster that spends half its duration cranking you to the top and the latter half plunging you back to earth! It’s a beautiful Rubik’s cube with so many moving parts it may never truly be solved! It’s … okay, if you want to be a literal Linda about it, it’s a series of tangentially connected stories told with amazing skill in various styles, but it can feel very much like those first two things I said. If you’re not used to 19th century adventure stories, the first section might feel a little slow, but it gets more accessible to modern audiences as it goes along. The mystery grows as the layers are pulled back, until the merest hint of a connection between the narratives can set your spine a-tinglin’. If you’re like me you’ll reach the end with the uncomfortable sense that you’ve just read six better books than you’ll ever write, tempered only by the desire to read it again and spot more clues. If that’s not enough for you, it contains a hilariously and depressingly accurate account of travelling by train in Britain.



Mitchell, David – Ghostwritten

I sort of hoped that, as his first published novel, Ghostwritten might give some clue as to how David Mitchell developed the incredible talent on display in Cloud Atlas, marking an early and educational step on his journey as a writer. But nope, the talent is already in full bloom in this funny, globe-spanning, almost Vonnegut-esque epic. Even more than his other books, it blurs the line between novel and short story collection; some of the chapters – the one set on the holy mountain jumps out – feel easily rich enough to comprise entire novels in themselves. But there are some great “aha” moments when we finally see the quiver of connective threads binding the whole together. If I have one criticism it’s that the book is so sprawling, so dense with echoes and imagery, that it’s hard for a mere mortal like me to know quite what to take away from it, other than a general sense that everything is connected. But that just makes me excited to read it again some day, and the first time round it was an extremely enjoyable ride, and exquisitely written. (Granted, that may be the fanboy in me talking; at this point I’d probably say the same about a telephone directory if David Mitchell wrote it.)



Mitchell, David – Slade House

I often wish that authors would invent new types of supernatural being rather than plucking them wholesale – vampires! werewolves! zombies! – from the collective culture. In his last couple of books, David Mitchell has done an exceptional job of establishing his own unique mythology. Viewed from certain angles, Slade House seems like a classic haunted house story, albeit structured in Mitchell’s signature time- and viewpoint-hopping style, but his horrors possess an underlying logic that satisfies the rational side of my brain more than the vague, indistinct metaphysics of your average ghostie. In embracing the horror genre it feels a little like this author of astonishing power has decided to begin using that power for evil. Well, if it means more creepy delights like this, that’s okay by me. (Note: if you’ve read The Bone Clocks, you might have a little bit more of a clue what’s going on here, but I think picking up Slade House first would make for an equally enjoyable, if different, reading experience.)

V For Vendetta Moore, Alan and Lloyd, David – V For Vendetta

I’ve never read enough comics to fully adapt to them, so I tend to find them disconcerting and hard to follow. To try and fix this, I thought I’d try something I’d already seen the film of, and which also happens to be in one of my favourite genres. Like many dystopian visions, V For Vendetta shares a lot with Nineteen Eighty-Four, though being newer it is more creepily tuned in to the specifics of modern Britain. The characters are largely caricatures who play out clashes between ideologies: fascism, anarchy, justice, chaos, etc. It’s also deeply intertextual – it plays with quotations and scraps of philosophy, and is already making its own mark on the world. I really enjoyed it – it makes me want to read more comics, and just read more in general so I can appreciate its references. I did like the Faraway Tree stuff though. See, there’s something for all mental ages here!



Moore, Alan and Gibbons, Dave – Watchmen

I need to read Watchmen again, because for the moment I have nothing resembling insight, only superlatives to lavish upon it. Actually scratch that – I’m not a proper reviewer, I can gush if I want to. The art is stunning, even overwhelming at times, and considering its only path of entry to your brain is through your eyes, it is amazingly effective at conveying seas of noise and long-drawn-out eerie silences. The overall effect of the whole thing is exhausting. Perhaps that’s just down to my inexperience with comic books, or perhaps the world it presents is just a little too frighteningly believable: a world which hovers on the brink of nuclear war while the heroes who were once seen to protect it can only shuffle around New York City reminiscing about the good old days and mourning their lost youth and reputations. Hmm, I may have made it sound dull there, but it absolutely isn’t – it’s astonishing, even or perhaps especially to a superhero sceptic such as myself.




Ness, Patrick – The Knife of Never Letting Go

Lent to me by a friend who wanted to correct the slightly negative impression I had of Patrick Ness following More Than This. And happily, it worked! I lost myself in this story in a way that’s upsettingly rare these days, but which took me right back to the fantasy books of my childhood. The world, beginning with Prentisstown (a primitive religious settlement where people’s thoughts are constantly audible to everyone else and girls are unheard of), is beautifully realised, the themes (empathy, gender, secrets, religion) are complicated and deftly handled, and the style is much more flavourful than the gritty but bland stream-of-consciousness of so much YA. There are some quietly beautiful moments, but overall it moves about as fast as a book can without making you forget the stakes — there is just enough time, at points, to go “phew, maybe things are finally going to be okay now — OH JESUS CHRIST”. I only hope the rest of the trilogy lives up to it, seeing as the twists and tension and emotion have already been cranked up to potentially unsustainable heights. But having seen now what this author can do, I’m hopeful.

150-TheAskAndTheAnswer Ness, Patrick – The Ask and the Answer

As a rule, series tend to get less colourful as they go along, and such is the case with Chaos Walking, apparently. The sense of wonder and discovery from the first book is largely replaced with an oppressive dystopian darkness; the many and varied locations are replaced with one town and its surrounding locales; and the humour is mostly gone. I’m not entirely fond of this trend, but regardless, The Ask and the Answer is a skilfully woven story, and there is plenty here still to like. The pace remains breathless but just possible to keep up with, the world continues to tease us with its secrets, and even the most loathsome characters become three-dimensional people before our very eyes. (This is of course one of the oldest of all narrative conjuring tricks, but it can still be miraculously affecting to be reminded that every human being is a human being.) To cap it all off, the cliffhanger ending of the first book is surpassed by an even crazier one! Book three will definitely appear here in the near future.

Ness, Patrick – Monsters of Men

I left it way longer than I meant to before getting round to this final volume of the Chaos Walking trilogy, mostly because I’m a bad person but a little bit because The Ask and the Answer felt more like standard YA fare than the heart-pounding imaginative genius of The Knife of Never Letting Go. For me, Monsters of Men falls somewhere between the two previous books; the story is well constructed and the writing quite beautiful in places, but it still lacks some of the shine and variety of book one, and there are some fairly predictable YA beats along the way. Like the third Hobbit film, it seems to take place almost entirely on and around a flat grey battlefield – at least it did in my head, and there wasn’t much in the way of colourful description to dispell this impression. Still, I’m only focusing on the negatives out of love for Knife – this is by no means a bad conclusion to the trilogy, and looking back there is a power to all three books together than even the first does not possess on its own.

150-MoreThanThis Ness, Patrick – More Than This

There’s a lot about More Than This that I can’t say, but this is how it starts: a boy drowns, then wakes up in a strange, deserted version of a place he used to know. If you’ve read survival-based YA books before you’ll have some idea of what to expect — cobbling together resources in a world of darkness and despair, a simple stream-of-consciousness style — but there is also an enticing sense of mystery to keep you turning the pages. For the first third or so I was desperate to know what was going on, but when it began to become clearer I struggled to find it convincing, and without the core of intrigue to hold it together, my appreciation for the book kind of disintegrated. There are things about it that are commendable (again, I can’t elaborate without spoiling things), but ultimately the style, the logic of the world and the vagueness of the central themes were too off-putting for me.

150-TheFirstFifteenLivesOfHarryAugust North, Claire – The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Lately, in the world of not overly literary literary fiction (book club fiction, if that’s not a pejorative term) there seems to be a glut of books with titles like this: “The Intriguing Noun Phrase of Name Quirkyname”. I tried not to let this put me off what sounded like a cool premise: people who live their lives over and over again, always carrying forward the memories of their previous lives. And I was pleasantly surprised by how convincing and well thought through it all is – how these people have developed systems to take care of each other, to deal with members of their own kind who cause trouble, and to carry messages back and forth through time. My one criticism is mostly a matter of personal taste: in chronicling multiple lifetimes, the book encompasses such a broad sweep of time that it often doesn’t bother to zoom in and give us a close-up view, a sense of place and character, a gut connection to what Harry is living through. This perhaps reflects how the fleeting details of individual lives might come to mean less in such a drawn-out existence, but it also makes it hard for a mere mortal like me to fully relate. Still, the tangled game of cat and mouse that brings the book to a close is both tense and ingenious.




Orwell, George – Animal Farm

Another reread. This is the story of a workers’ revolution among the animals of Manor Farm, who chase out their human masters and seize control, before slowly realising that this new configuration of power has not resulted in the golden utopia they were promised. Animal Farm certainly deserves its status as a classic: it’s extremely well crafted and makes its points clearly and elegantly. To me, though, the directness of the allegory has always been mildly off-putting, and gives this book a bit of an educational flavour, like something designed to be taught in schools. But perhaps that’s just because Orwell’s follow-up, the magnificently terrifying Nineteen Eighty-Four, takes a lot of the same ideas and spins them into a much more complex and thought-provoking tapestry.


150-TheMountainAndTheFlood Perry, Sheila – The Mountain and the Flood

Another novel by my mum, published under her real name this time! It’s set in a dystopian future version of Scotland which achieved independence from the UK then went a bit evil and began cracking down on citizens of English birth. (Guess which side my mum was on in the independence debate?) In the midst of this, a half-English, half-Scottish family living in Edinburgh struggles to remain together, fighting first faceless bureaucracy and later actual people with actual faces. Oh, and while all this is going on, an apocalyptic storm is brewing that could flood most of Scotland. To do the indie book pitch thing: it’s Nineteen Eighty-Four meets The Day After Tomorrow meets Cat’s Cradle! It’s also very entertaining, even the bits I disagree with politically – which, in any case, tend to be superficial things rather than core philosophical tenets.



Pratchett, Terry and Gaiman, Neil – Good Omens

An apocalyptic tale in which the forces of Heaven and Hell are portrayed as world-weary, vaguely incompetent bureaucrats endlessly pushed around and manipulated by those up(and down)stairs. This sets the stage for a witty play involving frequent meetings between the mythological (represented by said bureaucrats and four horsepersons of the apocalypse, among others) and the mundane (represented by the inhabitants of the almost-too-wholesome English village of Lower Tadfield). Yeah, this book is definitely very Gaiman and Verry Pratchett, though in terms of style it feels more Pratchett to me – so densely packed with humourous insight, pleasing turns of phrase and clever images that as a writer I go into a state of denial to make myself feel better, thinking “okay, but it can’t REALLY be this well written”, even though it blatantly is.




Pullman, Philip – Northern Lights

From the very first page of Northern Lights we are wrapped in the rich, darkly intoxicating atmosphere of a world a lot like our own, but different in a few key ways. Most notably, people’s souls are embodied by daemons, animal companions which can shape-shift until their humans reach a certain age, at which point they settle into a permanent form. It’s a brilliant idea, sure to induce envy in any wannabe fantasy author (cough), but Pullman uses it in so many clever ways that you can’t stay mad at him. As plucky young heroine Lyra (along with her daemon Pantalaimon) leaves behind a cushy life in her version of Oxford and sets out to find her missing friend Roger – well, we go with her, in that magical but indefinable way that so few books achieve, and by the time we get to the north we are so embroiled in the ways of her world that what we find there strikes us as genuinely horrifying. Whatever you think of the later books in the trilogy – and they certainly get more divisive as they go – this opening volume is a spectacular masterpiece, and I don’t see how anyone with an interest in fantasy could disagree.




Pullman, Philip – The Subtle Knife

Whereas Northern Lights is a fairly linear story set in one world and told mostly from one point of view, The Subtle Knife pulls back to reveal much bigger and more complicated things going on, the mere nature of which would probably constitute a major spoiler. This is where the scope of Pullman’s ambition – alongside his hatred for certain real-world institutions – becomes clear. We are also introduced to the second major protagonist of the series, a troubled but good-hearted boy named Will, who is from our world but has that uncanny children’s fiction ability to very quickly accept that he’s just stepped into a realm of daemons, witches, soul-eating spectres and knives that can cut through the fabric of reality. If I have one criticism of this book, it’s that it is very much a middle chapter: up to and including the cliffhanger ending, a lot of what transpires feels like stage setting for book three. But that criticism rings a little hollow when it is almost impossible, at any point, to tear your eyes from the stage.




Pullman, Philip – The Amber Spyglass

There is more to criticise in The Amber Spyglass than in previous books in the series. The fragmentation of the plot which began in The Subtle Knife escalates here, to the point that it can be hard to piece it all together, even to remember which world everyone is in and whose side they are now on. Characters who once felt real become more ideas than believable people as, in a trend I generally disapprove of, the metaphorical meanings of the story begin to take precedence over the literal events. But these flaws are a perhaps inevitable consequence of the boldness of the themes, and a lot of potential disappointment is balanced by the cosmic scale and the intellectual vigour of the ideas presented. Some people won’t like these ideas. I generally do, although I’m not too keen on the way so many characters converge on the exact same point of view towards the end, finishing each other’s heartfelt lectures on the way things ought to be. Even with all these caveats I find the overall effect quite beautiful, and it’s still refreshing to see a young adult book take such a controversial stance, attacking huge real world institutions rather than just imagined baddies.

Pullman, Philip – La Belle Sauvage

I went into this worried that, as many prequels tend to do, this book would rely much too heavily on references to and nostalgia for the original series. And while the slow-moving first half of La Belle Sauvage could perhaps be accused of that, the second half very much feels like its own thing – a surreal journey blending fairytale and Bible story. The protagonists are likeable enough, if sometimes a little similar to those from His Dark Materials, but the show is stolen by the villain Gerard Bonneville, whose brilliantly creepy characterisation carries much of the book. Like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, this book also undermines some of the cosiness and security readers might associate with the original series; as Cursed Child made me think “oh yeah, even if I went to Hogwarts I might still have been a social outcast”, this one made me think “oh yeah, even if I had a daemon we might not get along with each other”. Plus at points it strips away the metaphors employed in HDM to lay bare some very ugly themes, which feels in keeping with the uncomfortable but largely positive cultural shifts of our times. An interesting and striking return to Lyra’s world, but doesn’t feel essential in quite the same way His Dark Materials did. Not yet, anyway.



Rothfuss, Patrick – The Name of the Wind

I’d heard such good things about this book that I couldn’t resist picking it up, despite my fear of reading straight fantasy in case it shows up my own novel. As I feared, there are certain sections that make me go “Awww, that’s sort of like that bit in my book, but way better”; at points Patrick Rothfuss seems to be taking us on a tour of fantasy tropes, going “This is how you do this one well, this is how you make this one interesting”. In some ways the setting feels like a pretty traditional fantasy world, albeit very well realised and rich in cultural detail. One thing that sets it apart is sympathy, a magic system that’s unique in that it … well, it almost makes sense. Unlike the handily vague fireball-flinging nonsense in a lot of fantasy novels (mine included), sympathy has rules which the reader is allowed to learn, so rather than feeling alienated when the protagonist pulls off a particularly badass piece of binding, you say “Ohhh, that was clever, well done!” It’s a great fun book, but if you’re the impatient sort, bear in mind that it is the first of a trilogy that is not yet finished and leaves many a loose end dangling provocatively in your face.


Rothfuss, Patrick – The Wise Man’s Fear

Rather than starting with a bang, this book eases us back into Kvothe’s world quite slowly, but that’s okay. Aside from his wise and charismatic style and his brilliant world-building, much of Rothfuss’s skill is in wrapping us up in the day-to-day details of his protagonist’s life – stressing us out with his troubles, making us cheer whenever he wins some small victory over circumstance – until the fact that we’re not actually him seems entirely irrelevant. In that, it reminds me of nothing so much as Harry Potter. And the slow build-up more than pays off, as the latter half of the book is jam-packed with stunning imagery and moments to make you gasp out loud and prickle with goosebumps. If the third in the series lives up to the first two, The Kingkiller Chronicle will definitely join Harry Potter and His Dark Materials on the list of stories I go back to when I want to be taken on a fantastic journey away from my worldly troubles. Whatever it says about me, stories like these are among my favourite things.

150-harrypotterandthecursedchild Rowling, J. K. / Thorne, Jack / Tiffany, John – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

I have not yet seen this play in the theatre, but I think I can safely say watching it would be a much better experience than reading it. On paper (or Kindle screen) it can feel like questionable fanfiction – familiar characters in new and unlikely situations, presented in an uncomfortably bare-bones style with little of the flavour of a novel. The plot is easy to criticise as more a Greatest Hits of Harry Potter than a true eighth installment, finding convoluted ways to bring in just about every element of the wizarding world you could possibly want to see on stage. This would be thrilling if you were actually watching it, but as I read my main reaction was “oh, I guess that’ll be really cool for the people who managed to get tickets”. Having said all that, there were odd bits that made me remember why I love the series so much. The new character of Scorpius is pretty great. And Rowling isn’t afraid to take risks, portray Harry in a more negative light than ever before, and show Hogwarts from the perspective of people much more socially alienated than him. As a social alien, I appreciated this greatly.


Stephenson, Neal – Snow Crash

Snow Crash opens strong – so strong that I was sure I was about to fall utterly in love with it. How can you not love a book following a samurai-sword-wielding-pizza-delivery-guy-slash-super-l33t-hacker and his sassy teenage sidekick, both employed by the mafia, as they zoom around the neon-tinted corporatised dystopian fragments of fallen future America? Even if knowingly pulpy cyberpunk nonsense wasn’t my thing, which apparently it is, I always respect authors who go for it to the degree that the opening third or so of this book goes for it. But then… I wouldn’t say it goes off the rails later on, but it certainly begins to feel more like a standard thriller, with guns, helicopter chases and more messing about in boats than The Wind in the Willows. Given the times in which we live, there are also some uncomfortable passages regarding a flotilla of refugees, though perhaps this reflects the exaggerated amoral vision of America that the book conjures; in places it feels like a twisted satirical collage almost in the vein of American Psycho. In the end, reluctantly, I settled for merely liking Snow Crash. It’ll do. I’ve been starring too many books lately anyway.



Taylor, Laini – Strange the Dreamer

Any story that involves a shy, bookish individual setting off on a journey into fantastical unknown lands is going to tickle a certain childish part of my brain from the get-go, and more so even than most, Strange the Dreamer continues to surprise and delight for most of its length. It feels like a fairytale spun out into a novel, pitch black in places but rich in wonder, serendipity, magic and romance – a kind of metaphysical romance so absurdly romantic that you can only look on with envy, cursing our own world’s relatively constrictive set of physical laws. My only real criticism is that the ending, in a manner that has become a little too familiar in modern fantasy, opts for a big straight-down-the-middle cliffhanger rather than attempting the messy business of wrapping up any of its plots. Apparently the story was originally conceived as a single volume, and the lack of closure at the end makes me wish it had remained that way – I’d have been perfectly happy with a twice-as-thick doorstop edition of this book with a proper ending.


Tchaikovsky, Adrian – Children of Time

The elevator pitch for Children of Time would make it sound pretty silly and unbelievable. A civilisation of super-evolved spiders slowly rises on a terraformed planet while their godlike accidental creator watches perplexedly and the last remaining band of humans in the universe bumbles around in space wondering what the hell to do about them? Okay there buddy, sounds like the movie would make for a decent MST3K episode at least. It is therefore doubly impressive that this book is so brilliant, profound and moving – a beautiful, utterly engaging depiction of the era-encompassing journey from the dawn of a civilisation to its apex and of what it means for a species to truly comprehend its own place in the universe. Particularly interesting are the implications about which aspects of our modern world are the inevitable products of the rise of civilisation, and which are flukes that wouldn’t necessarily arise elsewhere: the way in which the spiders read is a particularly clever example of how they diverge from us, believing their way to be the only natural, logical one. For every one of these carefully sculpted details and for the breathtaking scope of the story as a whole, Children of Time is a masterpiece of rigorous world-building and easily one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read.




Vaughan, Brian K. and Staples, Fiona – Saga, volumes 1-4

My friend Euan practically shoved Saga into my hands, and I’m glad he did. It’s a big, sprawling, colourful, funny sci-fi epic about two people from opposing sides of a war that has been “outsourced” to numerous planets and moons, who fall in love, have a baby and go on the run. Naturally the authorities from both sides see their love as the most dangerous thing in the entire battle-torn, explosion-riddled universe, and enlist some shady characters to hunt them down. So begins an ongoing rollercoaster filled with complicated, flawed characters, intelligent philosophical musings, and absolutely stunning artwork. In my quest for a theme I eventually settled on lost innocence: the newborn baby whose future self provides slightly jaded narration, the alien species that resemble Earth animals — these lend both humour and an odd pinch of melancholy to many scenes. Prudes’ note: these comics contain a fair bit of gruesome death and some moderately graphic sex, so if you’re squeamish you might run into a few scenes that cause you to … er, squeam, I guess.

Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut, Kurt – Breakfast of Champions

To a greater extent than the other Vonneguts I’ve read, Breakfast of Champions reads less like a novel and more like a guide to the human race written by a bemused, witty and easily distracted alien. It starts strong, with a sarcastic dismantling of the myths surrounding America, and goes on to cover such ground as free will, racism, the futility of all life, and ultimately just what the hell the Creator of the Universe is playing at. Despite, or maybe because of the fact that its actual capital-P ‘Plot’ is so deeply buried within a labyrinth of tangents that it can barely be located at all, this book made me understand certain things about Vonnegut’s style for the first time. At one particularly brilliant point, he breaks the fourth wall and explains why he writes the way he does; on several other occasions I laughed out loud at the gleeful immaturity with which he takes a sledgehammer to the sort of rules they teach you in creative writing classes.

Cat's Cradle Vonnegut, Kurt – Cat’s Cradle

You never quite know what you’re getting into with Vonnegut. Cat’s Cradle plays with a bafflingly diverse array of ingredients which interact in chaotic ways to bring about a most unconventional apocalypse. These ingredients include: the oddball children of the mysterious, deceased co-inventor of the atom bomb, a large quantity of new and useful philosophical terms (courtesy of Bokononism, a self-admittedly made-up religion), several fragments of ice-nine (a new kind of water that teaches any other water it touches to solidify into a stubbornly unusable block) and, last but not least, the tropical island nation of San Lorenzo. It reminds me a little of H G Wells in its mingling of dark visions of the future with musings on humanity which make such futures appear worryingly inevitable. I know this is one of Vonnegut’s best-regarded books, but for me it hasn’t yet clicked together into as satisfying a whole as, to pick an unfairly brilliant example, Slaughterhouse-Five. But there’s so much going on, thematically and philosophically, that I already have the itch to revisit it in the not-too-apocalyptically-distant future.

The Sirens of Titan Vonnegut, Kurt – The Sirens of Titan

Having grown up ingesting The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in various forms, it’s hard not to read Sirens as a sort of precursor: wry science fiction (wryence fiction) where dysfunctional people get whisked off to various planets and moons and put in vaguely absurd situations by forces outside their control. In the process it captures some of the random, chaotic, weird beauty of life. Breathtaking imagination is on display, in for example the descriptions of the creatures that live on Mercury, and of the being called Salo; these passages ought to make most writers – myself included and emphasised – slightly ashamed of their own lack of imagination. Also, it’s nice to finally know what my parents were talking about when they used to go on about chronosynclastic infundibula. Nerds.

Slaughterhouse Five


Vonnegut, Kurt – Slaughterhouse-Five

Vonnegut certainly does know his way around a weird sentence – I learned that much from Sirens of Titan. But in other ways, Sirens didn’t prepare me for this book. Rather than being a funny, occasionally melancholic philosophical romp, Slaughterhouse-Five is tight and sharp and crisp and deranged and brutal – merciless in its quest to hammer home the horrors of life in general and war in particular, chilling in its amused detachment from these horrors. But it wouldn’t be half as powerful without this detachment. Rather than moralising, it peppers us with short little bullets of humour and horror, and after a while it becomes disturbingly hard to tell which is which. Don’t read it unless you’re in the mood to think about death for a while. But you probably should read it at some point.


Among Others Walton, Jo – Among Others

Often I’m annoyed by fantasy stories that give us the option of believing all their impossible events take place only in one young character’s head – the sideways wink, that cheeky “oh, kids and their imaginations” thrown into children’s films as if the children watching aren’t going to notice. And even though this book is told in the form of a socially alienated 15-year-old’s diary, I didn’t really find myself suspecting that the fairies and magical events she describes were anything but real. Perhaps it’s because the way magic works is original and ingenious and beautifully integrated into the world – or perhaps it’s because the narrator is clever and likeable and odd in some very relatable ways, and I wanted to trust her. Also, along the way, she talks about a wide array of science fiction and fantasy books which, a little like the bibliography of 80s geekdom scattered throughout Ready Player One, might help people like me, who sometimes feel a bit out of the geek loop, to catch up.

Whitehead, Colson – The Underground Railroad

This lightly Gaiman-esque tale combines a rather harrowing depiction of slavery in the southern United States with a single element of fantasy: the titular underground railroad, which existed in reality as a covert anti-slavery movement, is here given a more literal existence as a network of tunnels and trains. The literalisation of this metaphor occasionally makes you forget that many of the more horrific events portrayed in this story actually happened, meaning that this realisation keeps creeping up on you throughout the book, coming as a fresh shock each time. It also gives the impression that some cosmic force – not just other decent human beings – is looking out for the oppressed. This makes parts of The Underground Railroad feel like a kind of escapism; I was never quite sure whether I was supposed to be reading it that way or as a hard-hitting portrait of slavery. Perhaps this is a tension inherent in all fantasy, but it felt more jarring than usual here. Not that jarring is a bad thing – as far as I’m concerned, if that’s what it takes to break our minds out of society’s prescribed ways of thinking about difficult subjects, jar away. Even if one ignorant white guy like me doesn’t appreciate all the subtleties, someone more important surely will.

The Picture of Dorian Gray


Wilde, Oscar – The Picture of Dorian Gray

Brilliant, simple, original ideas are hard to come by. Oscar Wilde had one of them, and the result is The Picture of Dorian Gray, a tragic exploration of a consequence-free life. Conspicuously absent are details about what Dorian actually DOES when he is supposedly indulging in wild excess and vice – I’m guessing these were too riskily risqué for a Victorian readership. As such, it is hard for us to tell exactly whose side we should be on as a modern audience, though Lord Henry’s cruel witticisms which sow the seeds of amorality in young Dorian’s mind can seem less seductive now than they probably did then. Also off-putting are the book’s treatment of class, and certain drawn-out descriptions of faraway things that have little bearing on the story. All in all, though, the book is still interesting for its iconic and genuinely unsettling imagery, its endless paradoxical soundbites and the sort of ending that makes you go “Now, that’s an ending!” (Also, for a bit of context it is well worth reading about Wilde’s life, particularly his trial, to which this book now seems incredibly relevant.)

150-DirtyStreetsOfHeaven Williams, Tad – The Dirty Streets of Heaven

This and the Dresden Files have made me suspect that daft over-the-top urban fantasy noir nonsense may be my guilty pleasure genre of choice. But perhaps that’s selling them short. Dirty Streets certainly has a strong premise, its main character being a tough-talking angel whose job is to present cases, in a sort of metaphysical courtroom dimension, for why the recently deceased deserve to go to heaven rather than be condemned to an eternity in hell. Against this backdrop, things get messy for the excellently named Bobby Dollar when souls begin to go missing; the action that follows is well-paced, the mystery theologically intriguing. That said, there is a fair chunk of junk here too, in particular a love story so unbelievable I was convinced it couldn’t actually be going to happen, and then it did. I guess that’s not much of a criticism though – it’s more like looking at a greasy chip shop pizza and noting that it’s probably not good for you, before you cram it down your throat.

John Dies at the End Wong, David – John Dies at the End

This book is a comical sci-fi horror … thingumy which proves that humour does not have to come at the expense of things like tension, empathy, poignancy and fear, and can in fact heighten them. Much of what transpires is disarmingly silly. Supernatural forces are painted as immature teenagers with a destructive streak, but this makes them somehow more terrifying than the solemn and restrained phantoms of most horror stories. The eponymous John is one of the most memorable characters I’ve read lately, mostly because he seems like exactly the sort of person you’d have gone to high school with – almost too ridiculous to be made up. It can also be so politically incorrect that it seems pointless to even point it out – in that way, and in its grotesque imagination, it reminds me more of South Park than of anything else. South Park mixed with a cheap B-movie mixed with Douglas Adams mixed with god-knows-what. I feel like either I or David Wong (probably me, to be honest) slightly lost the plot somewhere in the middle, but I certainly enjoyed it enough to stick the sequel (This Book is Full of Spiders) on my reading list.


The 5th Wave Yancey, Rick – The 5th Wave

I was unsure about this book from the first few chapters, as me and the main protagonist got off on the wrong foot, and sadly our relationship never fully recovered. The setting is ridiculously bleak, existing at some dark intersection between The War of the Worlds, The Walking Dead, and everyone you ever loved dying horribly. The story, meanwhile, is a cocktail of various Young Adult flavours, notably The Hunger Games (as the teenage protagonist stumbles from one gritty, back-to-basics survival situation to the next), and Twilight (as she gets all gooey over a mysterious but hot guy who may or may not want to kill her – has the whole of society just decided that that’s how love works now?). The story does have some moments of real cleverness, but they weren’t quite enough to hold my interest. Anyway, I won’t try to pass off my distaste as some sort of insight; it just didn’t really click for me.

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