Last month several GeekMoms and Dads wrote about their reading resolutions. My main one was to refocus on my reading and hope that I started enjoying it again. It was my intention to ensure I set aside thirty minutes a day to devote to reading. So far I’ve kept up that deal and it’s paying off. I’ve really enjoyed some of the books I’ve read in the first 6 weeks of the year, but even when I haven’t enjoyed the book, that half an hour dedicated headspace has done wonders for my love of the written word.
Following on from that resolution, it is my intention to write a monthly post, written from wherever I’ve currently made camp on my to-be-read mountain. In it, I’ll talk about the books I’ve read, the ones I’ve enjoyed, and the ones I didn’t. If my reading gives me any great insights into the meaning of life, I’ll flag them up too.
This month, I’m not sure whether to kick off with the comfortable or the unexpected. My two favorite books of the month are very different. Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes is a psychological thriller with a humdinger of an ending and Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Winter is the next volume in a much-loved series that I’ve talked about a number of times on GeekDad.
On the face of it, Behind Her Eyes seems to be written to cash in on the immense popularity of books like Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, and Before I Go to Sleep. Books with simple but sensational mysteries and cracking reveals. Pinborough’s writing is first rate. She’s an author with form, having brought us the excellent Mayhem and the cry-buckets Language of Dying (Full review, here.)
The psychological elements of this three-hander are masterfully handled. Louise has managed to become best friends with the wife of the man with whom she’s having an affair. Hapless coincidence or is there something more sinister in play? The answer to that question is fairly obvious, but who is playing who? The way Pinborough pitches the story, this way and that, leaves the reader unsure of what might come next. Behind Her Eyes is a masterclass in unreliable narration. I haven’t read a book that was truly “unputdownable” for a while, but Behind Her Eyes had me reading late into the night.
Then there’s the ending. The marketing for this book included the hashtag #wtfthatending. The end will leave you reeling. Whether in a good way or bad is probably down to the individual. Personally, I wasn’t completely happy with it. The bulk of the novel, though fiction, was deeply rooted in realism. The character portrayal is excellent. The end asked me to suspend my belief just that little bit too much. For me, there wasn’t enough foreshadowing. Having said that, the end is audacious and most definitely a surprise. Talking to friends and reading reviews, most people find the ending more than acceptable, and everybody I have spoken to agrees that Pinborough has written a page-turner of the highest order.
Europe in Winter, by comparison, is slow, comfortable, and unsensational. It’s another dose of Dave Hutchinson’s incomparable world-building. His gently satirical fractured Europe is a wonderful place to visit. Book three returns to Rudi, the loveable chef-cum-spy from the first novel, and we get to see a little more about the railway nation state, “The Line.” As a self-confessed train travel geek, needless to say, I couldn’t get enough of these sections. The resulting story involves sabotage, assassination, false identities, and slush funds of billions of pounds. It’s Cold War-era thriller writing, gentle but breathtaking.
The Fractured Europe books have been the absolute of highlight of my reading world this last year or so, and the third volume is more of the same. I can’t wait to see what Hutchinson writes next.
An unexpected pleasure has been Philip Reeve’s Railhead. I wanted to read it because it features Galaxy Crossing trains (see my aforementioned train geek comments), but is a children’s book, so my expectations were tempered. I actually picked up the book in the library for my 11-year-old, but he struggled with it. I think the book is probably more suited to ages 14+. The language used is rich (by which I mean a fabulous use of vocabulary rather than a pungent use of vernacular) and the science fiction concepts complex and mind-bending.
The story revolves around a street-thief called Zen Starling. Zen is picked up by the mysterious Raven and asked to steal a rare but apparently unimportant artifact. Of course, nothing is what it seems, and when Zen finds himself on board the royal train, things really start to get complicated. Reeve’s world building is wonderful. The novel is set in the far future. Humans have long since left Earth and huge sprawling super intelligent AIs control the galaxy. But how strong is their grip? Railhead contains some pretty trippy sequences as Zen and Raven tinker with the fundaments of the universe.
Railhead feels like something China Mieville would be proud of. The tone and measure of the novel reminded me of Ian McDonald’s Everness series, which is high praise indeed from this reviewer. The finale left me desperate for more, which is lucky as I have a copy of the sequel, Black Light Express, sitting somewhere on my paper mountain. Hopefully more about that next month.
Set in a closer future is The Transition by Luke Kennard. This is a dystopia for millennials, or rather a dystopia that features an exaggerated set of the problems that millennials face today. Set in the UK, Karl and his girlfriend Genevieve spiral deeper into debt as they try to eke out a living in London. After juggling credit card debt just a little too often, their house of cards comes tumbling down and Karl finds himself facing jail time for fraud.
The alternative is to join the “Transition,” a program for upwardly mobile couples who haven’t managed things quite right. This being a dystopia, the Transition is not quite what it seems, and soon, Karl is falling foul of its more underhand practices.
The Transition, though, in essence, a dystopia, is more an examination of the travails of modern life. What are the perils of telling a generation it can have anything it wants, whilst jobs are scarce and prices exorbitant? Kennard looks at relationships and interdependence. At what point does your partner stop being your rock and become the anchor holding you back?
Whilst never the explosive counter-culture thriller that we’ve come to expect dystopian fiction to be, The Transition quietly makes us wonder whether, as Blur said many years ago, “Modern Life Is Rubbish.” As we move forward, is the next generation being set up for a fall, and what price for our children’s mental health? A thought-provoking read, The Transition is a novel that has grown on me, the more I ponder its details.
G X Todd’s Defender is the only book that I’ve read so far this year that I wouldn’t particularly recommend. It offers a very bleak dystopia (as opposed to all the happy ones!). The premise is interesting, but I found the bulk of the book pedestrian. Civilization has come to end after humans started hearing voices in their heads. Voices that cajoled them to murder or self-harm. Those that remain do not hear voices, apart from the very few that still can but have not, for reasons unspecified, succumbed to their internal dialogues.
One thing that Todd probably has right is that post-apocalypse Earth is not a pretty place for women. This makes for some pretty uncomfortable reading. There’s nothing gratuitous, but it is unflinching. The novel is set in the US, and characterization is strong. The novel’s conclusion is affecting, but, overall, I didn’t feel the story held up.
Defender contains too many coincidences. Every time the characters went anywhere, they ran inadvertently into trouble. Considering the world is meant to be mostly depopulated, this stretched believability too far. There is an overreaching story arc, but it’s slow in forming. Defender is the start of a new trilogy and, whilst a wider picture begins to emerge, I don’t think there is enough here to demand I read a second volume.
It Can’t Happen Here is another piece of dystopian fiction, written in 1936 by Sinclair Lewis. It had fallen out of print in the UK, but Penguin Books feels, for some reason, it’s time for a reprint. The book features a blustering demagogue who sweeps to a US Presidential win on the back of appealing to the disenfranchised. He promises to make the US great again. The title, I stress, is It Can’t Happen Here.
Written in response to the rise of Nazis in Germany, it’s surprising just how many parallels to 2017 it contains. The novel is a little dry but shows that, though the times may change, humans generally don’t. In many ways, It Can’t Happen Here sums up what I love about reading: written for a different era, yet still relevant today. The novel is a document of history, and also a novel of ideas captured forever in print. The ideas may fall out of favor and the book out of print, but they are not lost forever. Sinclair Lewis has reached from the past to warn us of human folly. It remains to be seen whether we’ve learned anything in the last 80 years.
Disclaimer: I received review copies of The Transition, Defender, and Behind Her Eyes.