Reading Highlights of 2019

I started 2019 with the intention of blogging about every book I read. This is an intention that eventually fell by the wayside because there are some books about which I really don’t have anything to say. These were the books that were neither great nor terrible, and about which all I can say is “that was okay”.

This post is not about those books.

I also read some really, really good books, and these are the books that this post is about.

Among these were two novels by Sarah Pinborough: The Shadow of the Soul and The Chosen Seed. These are the second and third parts of the Dog Faced Gods trilogy and, if you like dark urban fantasy, this series is well worth a read. The series is both dystopian and apocalyptic and keeps you hooked from beginning to end.

I also read a couple of (completely unrelated) novellas by Adrian Tchaikovsky. The Expert System’s Brother is a science-fiction story masquerading as a fantasy and, while short, packs a lot of detail into the page count in a way that manages to be both immersive and gripping. The second Novella was Made Things which was a short and very readable tale about trust, loyalty and friendship. The question of what it means to be a person is a theme that often appears in Tchaikovsky’s writing and is one that is very apparent in both of these stories.

2019 was also the year in which I discovered C.J. Cherryh by way of Foreigner, the first book in her eponymous series. Foreigner is a first contact novel wrapped in a thriller, the twist being that, this time, it’s humans that have landed on an alien planet and having to navigate a completely alien culture. I cannot believe that I still haven’t gotten around to reading Invader yet — I shall have to rectify this very soon.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor utterly blew me away. At less than 100 pages, this was a very quick read but there is so much packed into this novella that it really is worth going back and reading it again. The synopsis I saw for this made it sound like a fairly unexceptional space opera. What makes it stand out is that by drawing on her Nigerian roots, Nnedi Okorafor manages to look at questions of culture and cultural identity is a way that is (to me) utterly original.

Another novel that felt completely new to me was The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. Again, by not relying on the usual white western stereotypes, Jemisin presents a densely detailed world that is like nothing I have read before. I have already read the second book in this (The Broken Earth) series, and will be picking up a copy of The Stone Sky just as soon as I have the time.

And finally there is The Jennifer Morgue by The Jennifer Morgue, the second book in the Laundry Files series. This is, subversively funny, often unnerving and absolutely spot-on about PowerPoint.

The Jennifer Morgue

While I enjoyed Charles Stross’ first novel from the Laundry Files, The Atrocity Archive, this second outing is significantly more entertaining. This may well say more about me than about Charles Stross.

While the first book, among other things, pastiched Len Deighton, this one picks James Bond as the target for its literary satire and Ian Fleming is a writer with whom I am a lot more familiar. As such, I suspect that, while some of the jokes in the first book passed me by, I caught a lot more of them this time around.

Some agents have all the fun. Others save the world.

Bob Howard is an IT expert and occasional field agent for the Laundry, the branch of Her Majesty’s Secret Service that deals with occult threats.

Dressed (grudgingly) in a tux and sent to the Caribbean, he must infiltrate a millionaire’s yacht in order to prevent him from violating a treaty that will bring down the wrath of an ancient underwater race upon humanity’s head. Partnered with a gorgeous American agent who’s actually a soul-sucking succubus from another dimension, Bob’s mission (should he choose to accept it) is to stop the bad guys, avoid getting the girl, and survive – shaken, perhaps, but not stirred.

Stross is an interesting writer in that he draws from a wide range of disparate influences which he juxtaposes in a manner that is by turns funny, disturbing and often both.

It helps, of course, that the writing and characterisation are so strong with Bob Howard believably and likeably struggling to navigate the bureaucratic insanities with which we are all too familiar. The Jennifer Morgue follows on from The Atrocity Archive and, this time around, everything clicked perfectly into place, making for a story that is both subversively funny and frequently unnerving.

The book also includes a second story, Pimpf, which takes place in the Laundry offices and is about corporate politics, over-enthusiastic interns and online demonic possession.

And everything is wrapped up with an essay on Ian Fleming, James Bond and where the real global villains can be found.

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

The Atrocity Archives is the first of Charles Stross’ Laundry novels which are premised on the idea that alternate dimensions exist and are populated by all sorts of Lovecraftian horrors. The twist is that the magic needed to summon these is a branch of mathematics, which means that anyone with a laptop and an interest in equations could accidentally annihilate Wolverhampton.

Of course, in such a universe, government agencies will exist to keep the dimensional portals closed and ensure that no-one with an interest in equations accidentally does annihilate Wolverhampton. This brings us to The Laundry, an offshoot of Britain’s wartime activities that continues to protect us all from these nameless horrors.

The real brilliance of this novel, however, is that rather than portraying The Laundry as some slick super-spy organisation, Stross assumes that it would operate in the manner of any other Civil Service organisation — bound by bureaucracy, hampered by office politics and obsessed with quality standards.

The Atrocity Archives is comprised of two novellas: The Atrocity Archives and The Concrete Jungle. The hero of both of these stories is Bob Howard, an IT support guy who works for the Laundry and who — foolishly — expressed an interest in active service.

In The Atrocity Archives, we follow Bob’s first forays into active service and see him quickly finding himself out of his depth and facing interdimensional Nazis, Islamist terrorists, elder gods and a wormhole to a dying universe. In The Concrete Jungle, Bob finds himself facing a deadly combination of CCTV and office politics.

Both are played straight with the humour deriving from the juxtaposition of the sort of mundane bureaucracy with which we are all familiar with horrifying alien intelligences. This mixture of the mundane and the weird keeps you off balance and allows Stross to insert all sorts of strangeness without it ever becoming too unbelievable.