The Books 2014 Forgot

It is my constant lament that great books go unread while trite, unimaginative and poorly-written pablum rockets to the top of the charts. It is even worse when those bestsellers are scientifically illiterate and lack any basis in reality or common sense (see The Real Meal Revolution) or lacking any foundation in fact or originality (anything by Malcolm Gladwell) or just the same old crime thrillers by the same old names, with the same grizzled detectives solving superficially interesting crimes (like half of the NYT bestseller list).

Some of the books I’ve mentioned below did well overseas but not in South Africa, and that kills me because some of these are local and deserve better. And in my constant, never-ending and admittedly ill-fated mission to promote excellent (and sometimes slightly inaccessible) books, I would like to promote some books that everyone should read or buy as gifts for people like me who are difficult to please. Where possible, I have added links and reviews.

Onwards!

71QTSFmYk6L._SL1500_The Three by Sarah Lotz

Read my full review

Elevator pitch: Four planes drop out of the sky at the exact same moment. Three children survive. The world freaked out in 2014 when MH370 went down – imagine 4 planes, at once, across the world. A tightly-written, utterly compelling thriller of the highest order anointed by the High Writer of Horror Stephen King.

Sold at a massive auction off a manuscript fragment, this locally-authored book did spectacularly overseas, but I was saddened by poor local support.

10352275_637546756336934_2894595274120220687_nBroken Monsters by Lauren Beukes 

Read my review here

Elevator pitch: Detroit, rotting corpse of America’s dreams, is being stalked by an imaginative and terrifying serial killer. This is not your bookclub’s crime thriller: it is a superb mix of every genre, with literally dozens of ideas bursting off every page.

Also locally authored, with excellent international support but not enough local readership. Can we all get over our cultural cringe, please? Also anointed by the Dark Lord Stephen King.

books24f-2-webThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

My review here

Elevator pitch: A young girl is married off to a rich merchant in Amsterdam. The marriage is strained from the beginning, and he attempts to appease her with a cabinet containing a miniature version of their household. But when the cupboard’s contents start to predict household events, all that is hidden is forcibly revealed.

I loved this for its immense historical detail, crisply and deeply detailed characters and lyrical prose, as well as its gorgeous setting.

Awards: Waterstones Book of the Year 2014

9781594633171_custom-72d13cb6685ce632b975840ffc997395a0f5e4e7-s6-c30In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen

Review by the Washington Post
Review by The Guardian

Elevator pitch: It is 1996, and strangers gravitate to Auschwitz, sleeping in the guard’s quarters, meditating in the snow and listening to apologies from clergy and congregation. They attempt to make sense of the madness, but can anybody? A lyrical take on survivor’s guilt, religious guilt and Holocaust voyeurism.

It is a shortish little book, but it is weighty and challenges the  facile idea of closure and healing around such a cataclysmically monstrous event.

DW_full coverDark Windows by Louis Greenberg

Review by the Mail and Guardian

Elevator pitch: What if Joburg suddenly knew peace and harmony? When a New Age government takes control, a wave of calm sweeps through the country. But the Transformation is not complete, and requires the blacking out of windows in rooms where violent acts have taken place. Why?

A quick-thinking, provocative piece on Joburg, the legitimacy of hippie thinking and the causes and costs of violence. The ending alone is worth the read.

Gordon Torr -  Kill Yourself & Count to 10 HRKill Yourself and Count to 10 by Gordon Torr

My Sunday Times review here

Elevator pitch: What happened to all the soldiers who didn’t suit the Calvinist apartheid government? They were sent to Greefswald, a camp for the broken toys of the sociopathic Dr Levine. A rage-inducing, haunting look at a hidden and shameful chapter in South African history.

This is a tremendously difficult read at times due to the weight of its history and suffering, but it should really be taught in schools.

the-collected-works-of-a-j-fikryThe Collected Works of AJ Fikry

My review here

Elevator pitch: This is a bookseller’s book, a tribute to the life and times of a little bookstore and its owner, and the girl he finds abandoned in it. It is a wonderful, quirky read and a love song to literature.

I especially loved the reading list suggestions by Mr AJ Fikry himself, broad and fascinating and uploading.

Review of The Dying of the Light by Derek Landy

Skulduggery Pleasant is not a series for the weak-hearted. It is a dark, hilarious and 1600_1200_skul2addictive thrill of a series, and unlike most fantasy novels, none of the female characters ever have to take their clothes off just to be noticed. (Seriously, Fantasy, as a genre you need to stop it with the pointlessly naked ladies.)

In fact, it is a dual protagonist series, starring the eponymous wisecracking skeleton wrought from black magic and iron will, and a young girl named Valkyrie Cain who grows increasingly and impressively powerful. She owns her power and her gifts, never apologising for being strong and resourceful, and is given full reign throughout nine books to explore herself not only as a sorcerer, but as a woman shouldered with saving the world. Throughout the series, we see many clever, capable and funny women, some of immense power and strength. Some are good, and some are very, very bad, and it makes for a great change to see women on both sides of the moral fence rather than standing off to the side cheering on the manly men with the swords.

Basically, if the Harry Potter series was better written and Hermione was the lead, rather than second-fiddle to a deeply annoying and undeserving lead character, it might almost be as good as Skulduggery Pleasant. Might. Could have used more fine tailoring as well.

In the newest and final book The Dying of the Light, the big, bad villain the series has been building up to over a couple thousand pages is on the rampage, having stolen Valkyrie’s body and using it to plan the destruction of the world, as well as whichever planets are nearby. We see the extent of truly unfettered power (the scenes in which Darquesse explores her newfound power of rearranging things at the subatomic level are gratifyingly horrifying) and the novel constantly twists and turns to the point I honestly expected one of those “EVERYBODY DIES” endings. So many characters make it back in time for the last novel – Scapegrace the Zombie King, Doctor Nye, Tanith Low, The Dead Men, the Remnants and China Sorrows – that this feels like a good send-off for the series. I have loved it since I accidentally came across the first one two years ago and read the first four in one delirious weekend. I adore Skulduggery for his wit and his compassion and his refusal to let his past ruin him forever. I will miss Valkyrie and China and Scapegrace, but it is grand to see a series come to a graceful and timely close, rather than dragging on like static at the end of a forgotten vinyl.

I can’t say much more about The Dying of the Light without spoiling it, but overall, this book was worth the year-long wait. It is packed with action, just the right amount of pathos without being sentimental, and within the greater battle between good and evil, it takes time to ask smaller, quieter questions. It is far more than a young adult fantasy series (ugh I hate that term) – it is a detective novel, it is a thriller, and a horror. Skulduggery Pleasant is a weighty and refreshing contribution to a genre that is in desperate need of fresh air and great one-liners.

Skul-friends-skulduggery-pleasant-24228440-720-640

Review of The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

It isn’t often that a book comes around and refuses to sit in one neat genre– it just

shining girls limited edisn’t polite. Usually a book can be allocated its genre within a moment of reading the blurb and glancing at the jacket. But then there’s The Shining Girls, which gleefully refuses to pick a genre box to sit in, and decides that it will timeshare in several. The Shining Girls is part crime thriller, part speculative fiction, part sci-fi. It also makes time to touch on a variety of subjects, including baseball, journalism, women’s resistance movements and the Depression, which is a delicious smorgasbord of ideas that also don’t overcrowd each other.

In brief, violent drifter Harper Curtis is a man in trouble, and stumbles into a house that offers the solution to all of his problems. But the house has a secret, and an exacting price. The house can open onto different times, but if Harper wants to stay in the house, then he must hunt down and cut the fire out of the shining girls, women who are special within their own times. And so begins Harper’s killing spree across decades, which comes to him with ease and terrifying glee. But when he fails to kill Kirby, she turns the hunt back on him with unrelenting determination.

the-shining-girls-book-cover-2This is not an easy book to read: it deals with suffering, with absolutely brutal violence and the worst that humans can do to each other. Each shining girl is profound in her potential, and each murder is highlighted for its horrific waste of a life. So often are the female victims in crime books delineated as props, just treated as a way to highlight the cleverness of the murderer. And Harper isn’t clever – he’s a disgusting lowlife who is willing to kill for a nice house to live in. Which is why Kirby is so much more interesting than most female leads in books these days. She’s smart but not savant-smart, she fights with her mom, makes mistakes and is truly brave. She could be any one of us, because those are the same markers of all the shining girls: they’re all women making the very best of what has been given to them regardless of their circumstances.

My only criticism of this book is that I wish it had been longer. When meeting shining girls SABeukes at the launch of The Shining Girls, I could tell that there were vast swathes of research that didn’t make it into the book. Granted, its current incarnation keeps it moving briskly and there isn’t a wasted word. It has been beautifully edited (which is becoming a rarity, sadly) and there’s nothing wrong with its current length. I love all the details – the underground abortion group, the Glow Girl, the McCarthy witch-hunts – I just wish there had been time to explore all of them more. Perhaps another hundred pages could have done the trick. I also loved that this was an unabashedly feminist book. I know feminism has become something of a dirty word in publishing, but it is about time that a book about crime actually dealt with the violence perpetuated against women rather than using it as a lazy plot-point. It is especially sad when female writers treat their female victims as disposable – seeing each victim realised in such heart-breaking detail is as important as it is unusual.

shining girls USOf course, the time travel element adds another delicious layer. Hardcore sci-fi fans will be disappointed that it isn’t more central to the novel, but the time travel allows for an exploration of different decades, in which we see how much (and how little) has changed. While researching the novel, Beukes travelled to Chicago and many of the photos she took while she was there appear on the South African jacket. In fact, the jacket only reveals its secrets as one progresses through the novel, which is a delight in and of itself. Produced by the amazing home-grown Joey Hi-Fi, the jacket’s many elements tie into the shining girls themselves, the time periods the novel crosses and moments that enrich the background of the story.

I say it again: this is sometimes an uncomfortable book to read, as well it should be. Violence should never be passively consumed, nor lightly discussed. The characters, good and evil, leap large from the pages. The settings are consuming, and it is easy to lose yourself in the detail. And if your nightmares reflect your bedtime reading, then keep this for daytime. But you will be hard-pressed to find a book this creative, this interesting and this powerful this year.