Intriguing psychological thrillers and alternate history
Issue 12: Sunday, December 26, 2021
“Best of” Lists
Not so many interesting “new and upcoming” books this time. It’s the time of year for “Best of 2021” lists, so I thought I’d list a few of those here. My own such list, you ask? Wait for next issue.
The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2021 - The New York Times
From epic voyages to haunting folk tales, here are the highlights of an otherworldly year.
Best fiction of 2021 - The Guardian
Dazzling debuts, a word-of-mouth hit, plus this year’s bestsellers from Sally Rooney, Jonathan Franzen, Kazuo Ishiguro and more
The Must-Read Books of 2021 - Penguin Random House
2021 has brought us some incredible titles. If you want to read the books that people couldn’t stop talking about this year, see below for our list of powerful memoirs, page-turning novels, and more!
The Best Books of 2021 - The New York Times
Editors at The Times Book Review choose the best fiction and nonfiction titles this year.
The best books of the year so far - BBC Culture
What to read now, from a fast-paced debut to an ‘exquisitely cruel’ comic novel and visceral survey of slavery. Rebecca Laurence and Lindsay Baker round up the BBC Culture picks.
The 100 Must-Read Books of 2021 - TIME
The fiction, nonfiction and poetry that shifted our perspectives, uncovered essential truths and encouraged us forward
The Award-Winning Novels of 2021 - Literary Hub
The wait for a return to the raucous, glitzy literary awards ceremonies and afterparties of yesteryear goes on. Yes, for the second season running, statuettes were delivered by mail, speeches were made over zoom, and victorious authors donned formalwear to get tipsy in their apartments when they should have been spotlit at auditorium podiums, drinking in the cacophonous applause of their peers.
2021 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards
The winners are:
Fiction: The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey
Poetry: The Strangest Place, New and Selected Poems by Stephen Edgar
Australian History: People of the River: Lost Worlds of Early Australia by Professor Grace Karskens
Children’s Literature – joint winners:
- Fly on the Wall by Remy Lai
- How to Make a Bird by Meg McKinlay (WA) and illustrated by Matt Ottley (NSW)
Young Adult Literature: Metal Fish, Falling Snow by Cath Moore
Non-fiction: The Stranger Artist: Life at the Edge of Kimberley Painting by Quentin Sprague
Completed Since Last Issue
Lemon by Kwon Yeo-sun
First published in Korean in 2019. Translated by Janet Hong.
This is a very clever, if short, novel of crime and psychological drama, in which very little is spelled out explictly but much is implied.
It's narrated in the first person by three different people, the first of whom, we eventually discover, is called Kim Da-on. She was the younger sister of Hae-on, a stunningly beautiful girl who was found dead about 16 years before this narrative is being written. This incident is known as "The High School Beauty Murder". Da-on tells us that she's been obsessively going over every detail of the case for all those years, to the extent that she sometimes fools herself into thinking that she'd personally witnessed some of the circumstances.
There were two main suspects in Hae-on's murder: Shin Jeongjun, a rich young man who took her for a ride in his fancy car the afternoon of the murder; and a teenage boy, Han Manu, who comes from a poor family and was raised by a single mother. Shin Jeongjun has a pretty solid alibi, which Han Manu doesn't. Nevertheless, there's not enough evidence to charge him, and the case eventually becomes cold.
Da-on, however, isn't prepared to let her sister's death go. She believes she knows the identity of the murderer, though she never tells us who she thinks that is (though it's not too hard for us to figure it out). And she takes action to exact revenge; though again we're never told explictly what that revenge is, though it's pretty evident if you read carefully.
The second narrator is Shanghui, who was a fellow student of Hae-on, and through her eyes we see both sisters: Hae-on astonishingly beautiful but not very clever, and Da-on, unattractive but very smart, who seems compelled to look after her older sibling rather than the other way around. After Hae-on is murdered, Shanghui shows us how severely her older sister's death affects Da-on, making her obsession very clear to the reader.
The third narrator... well, you'll have to read the book, I don't want to give too much away.
Suffice it to say that I thought this was a really excellent book, intriguing and cleverly constructed. Though it's short it was a gripping and engaging read.
The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford
This is book originally came out in 1983, and won the World Fantasy Award in the following year.
It's a very well-constructed melding of alternate history and fantasy. The details of the changed history are certainly not spoon-fed to us, but require quite a bit of thinking on your part as you work through the first few chapters, which also serve to introduce us to the four main characters of the story.
The first such character is a teenage boy called Hywel Peredur, who is fascinated by a prisoner of a group of soldiers who stay for a day or two at the inn where he works. The prisoner is filthy and in chains, and the soldiers tell Hywel: "He's an eastern sorcerer, a Bezant. From the City itself, they say."
What is this City? It's Constantinople, held in awe by most who talk of it.
Hywel is more than fascinated by the wizard: he helps him escape and asks to be taught how to be a wizard himself.
The second character is Dimitrios Ducas, who is "ten years old when the Emperor of Byzantium made Dimi's father the governor of a province on the frontier". So we're immediately thinking, hang on, the Byzantine empire is still around? And what is the province of which Dimi's father is now governor? It turns out to be Gaul.
The third character is Cynthia Ricci, who like her father is a doctor of medicine in Florence, where, as in our timeline, the Medici family is dominant.
The fourth and final main character is Gregory von Bayern, an artillery engineer. But there’s something wrong with him, which his companions are uneasily aware of. He’s been infected with a terrible illness, the effects of which he is constantly struggling with. He is, in fact, a vampire, trying desperately to resist the desire to drink human blood.
All of the main characters are complex, interesting and well-delineated individuals, and all in different ways have suffered a great deal.
The Byzantine Empire is aggressive and constantly pushing to expand its borders through a variety of unscrupulous means. It is, if you like, an Evil Empire, and the four characters I’ve described are each in their own way doing their best to defeat its ambitions. They eventually meet and decide to go to England, where the Wars of the Roses are at an end and Edward IV is now king, and there they become associated with the fortunes of Richard, Duke of Gloucester. A very different spin on English history is then laid out.
This is a really excellent book, now a classic of the genre. It's not necessarily an easy read, requiring close attention, but it's very rewarding.
(By the way, the blurb on the back cover of the 2020 Tor Essentials edition of this book is completely wrong, seemingly written by someone who hasn't read the book).
The Housemate by Sarah Bailey
This is a pretty strong crime novel by Sarah Bailey, whose debut novel The Dark Lake was very good. Her second and third novels, all featuring the police detective Gemma Woodstock, were both good but not as strong as the first.
In The Housemate, we have a different main character, Olive Groves (who everyone calls ‘Oli’). She’s not with the police but is instead a journalist with a fictional Melbourne newspaper. Ten years before the main action of this book, Oli was a young reporter attending a crime scene where Evelyn, one of three young women sharing a house together, has been stabbed to death. The crime is quickly pinned on one of the other housemates, Alex, who is covered in Evelyn’s blood and whose fingerprints are on the knife which killed her. The third housemate, Nicole, is missing and the police believe that Alex must have killed her earlier and disposed of the body somewhere they haven’t discovered.
Olive is now a senior reporter at her current newspaper. One morning she’s startled to be told by her editor that Nicole, the missing housemate, has just turned up outside a small township in the Dandenongs. She’s dead, having apparently committed suicide. Where has she been for ten years, and why has she just now decided to end it all? Oli is assigned to the new story, and told, much against her will, to team up with a young man called Cooper Ng, who is a technical whizz preparing to launch a podcast for the newspaper. Oli finds him at first extremely irritating and unprofessional, but eventually settles into a working relationship with him.
Like Gemma Woodstock in Bailey’s earlier books, Oli has a complicated personal life. She’s now living with a man called Dean Yardley, who has two primary-school aged daughters. Their mother, his first wife, was Detective Sergeant Isobelle Yardley, who was the lead investigator in the original Housemates case. She has been dead for a couple of years, having been killed in a hit and run incident while jogging. Dean is a very controlling man and Oli’s relationship with him is constantly under tension as she tries to juggle her stressful job at the same time as his demands.
The author spins all this into a gripping story with many twists and turns. I do have to say, though, that there seemed to be a number of loose ends which were wrapped up too quickly and, for me, unconvincingly at the end of the book, so I’m sorry to say that although I’d been very engaged for most of it, I felt a bit let down at the end. It just feels as though the author was in a bit of a rush to get it done.
The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins
This was another production I did for Standard Ebooks. While critics don’t consider The Dead Secret to be one of Collins’ best novels, it contains some of the same elements of mystery and suspense as The Woman in White and The Moonstone, and much of his characteristic wry humor.
You can download it for free here.
Far from the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson
OK but not great science fiction novel. It purports to be a locked room murder mystery in space. A starship arrives at its destination with the ship’s AI apparently damaged and not responding well, and dozens of passengers dead. The ship’s human first officer has to try to rescue the situation. (Seems rather similar to 2001 A Space Odyssey, if you ask me). Interesting enough, I suppose, but not compelling. Characters don’t have much depth.
I wrote last time that I wasn’t at all impressed by Andy Weir’s novel Project Hail Mary, though everyone else in the world (including Barack Obama, with whose taste I generally agree) seems to think is great. Far from the Light of Heaven is no better, as far as I am concerned.
Really, I'm deciding that this kind of science fiction really doesn't interest me much any more. I should stop trying to read it and talk about it.
All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton. Not far into this as yet, but I loved his Boy Swallows Universe.
That’s it for this issue. Don’t forget to help me spread the word by sharing this post with your friends.