My month in books: January 2020

It’s been too long since I talked about books. Hooray for books! Here’s what I’ve been reading this month – six very different novels, although there is something of a fantasy theme. Plus one genuine five-star, loved-it, oh-my-god-this-is-incredible book.

My first completed book of the decade was Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch. I’ve been plowing through Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series over the last few months, and five books in, they are still a delight. This instalment finds DC Peter Grant well outside his London comfort zone as he investigates missing girls in the Herefordshire countryside. If you have any taste for urban fantasy, this series is worth checking out. Next stop: The Hanging Tree.

I’ve been working through Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey for almost as long as I’ve been reading Rivers of London novels. This was a frustrating book – the pacing felt incredibly slow, with a plot only beginning to emerge as the two main characters meet, 250 pages in. Oscar is the son of a Plymouth Brethren biologist who converts and becomes an Anglican priest. Lucinda is an Australian heiress. Neither of these stories appeared to have much to do with the other. At this point, I was desperate to set it aside and read something more interesting. But it won the Booker, and all this waffle had to be a set-up for something, so I felt I should continue and see if Carey could stick the landing. So every time I finished a different book, I would force myself to cram in a few more chapters of Oscar and Lucinda before I moved on to something else. Finally I finished it this month, and I can report: I did not like it, and it was a waste of my time.

The Underground Railroad was one of my favourite reads last year, so when I saw Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead on sale, I had to pick it up. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy this one as much. The book’s central theme of naming things is interesting – our protagonist is a consultant hired to rename a small town – but it’s rather a slight book, and I honestly don’t remember much about it.

Midway through the month, my to-read list got a major boost from my favourite bookshop. I was lucky enough to be given a Mr B’s Reading Spa as a gift last year and have been looking forward to my appointment ever since. The Reading Spa is a genius invention – I got to chat with the staff about our favourite books for two hours, all while enjoying a cup of tea and some vegan chocolate cake. I came away with six new books, a list of 20 more which I am now desperate to read, and a strong desire to be friends with everyone who works there.

My first recommended read was The City and the City by China Miéville. Lots of people whose in books I trust have pitched Miéville to me over the years, and I’m not sure why I wasn’t listening, because The City and the City turned my brain inside out in a great way. It’s a detective story set in the decaying Eastern European city of Besźel, which is located in the same place as the city of Ul Qoma. But this isn’t a parallel universe situation – the cities are literally located in the same place. Citizens of each city go about their lives next to each other, diligently ignoring the opposite city’s people and buildings (“unseeing”). Traffic is… complicated. I loved this book’s twisty plot and mind-melting concept, and it made me think more about the “unseeing” we all do in our everyday lives.

But the clear highlight of my month was the phenomenal Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. The teenage protagonist, Sylvie, is forced by her obsessive father to spend her summer taking part in a historical re-enactment of Iron Age Britain. While her father initially seems like a disgruntled hobbyist, the darker reasons for his interest in the period soon emerge. Despite being only 150 pages long, this book packs an enormous punch. Moss delves into themes of nationalism, class, and gender, but the result never feels overloaded – it’s a tense, tight novel with well-developed characters and some truly visceral writing. As soon as I finished it, I felt the urge to read it again. This is a book that will stay with me for a long time.

On to lighter fare. Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames was pitched to me like this: “A fantasy novel where an ageing group of mercenaries have to get the band back together for one last job, but also they’re Led Zeppelin.” I don’t think I can do much better than that, really. I’m halfway through this book, and so far, it’s been a blast. In an era of Game of Thrones-inspired grimdark swords and sorcery, it’s a pleasure to read a fantasy story that doesn’t take itself too seriously. I love the characters, and the nice Spinal Tap gag where the band can’t seem to keep their bards alive for very long. It’s long, but I don’t mind – I’m looking forward to seeing what Clay Cooper and company get up to next.

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