Forget the vanity of the rhombus. Say no thank you to the grandiosity of triangles, cylinders and pyramids. Walk away from too-too spheres and cubes, and thrust forward the flat palm of no to the brazenly non-geometrical. The only shape gift you want to receive at this time of year is the rectangle. The true shape. The shape of a book.
To fill the rectangular holes in your life this year, here are our writers’ hearty recommendations, sent with our love.
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar
A technocratic cyber timeline is warring against an outer space biopunk Garden of Eden timeline up and down history. Then, on one particularly bloody battlefield, a soldier on one side of the war leaves a letter to the other. The exchange of letters that follows makes for a quick read, but with language you’ll want to linger over. It’s a small, intimate story about only two characters, but against the most epic backdrop you could ask for. In this war Atlantis falls over and over again, vast temples of bone exist in long forgotten pre-history, and futuristic scavengers build religions around Siri. But it is all just that, backdrop to the story of these two characters, scenery that the book dashes past without look back. It cares less about world building than it does about the imagery it provides for a wild and surprising love story.
My Sister The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Published by Atlantic Books (paperback, 2019)
This black comedy treads the line between funny and unsettling really well. There’s a lot going on here based on the sisters’ relationship, appearance and reaction to violent death. Combining elements of satire, crime and horror it’s a well-paced book that combines the ratcheting tension of murder with banalities of work and family life. The plot gets satisfying thicker and the characterization is thorough all the way through to the supporting characters.
I can imagine fans of Inside Number 9 finding a lot to enjoy from this one. It feels tonally similar to something that show would try as well as featuring a flawed central double act.
The Blue Salt Road by Joanne Harris
Flora the gunnerman’s daughter is beautiful, proud and cruel. The selkies that frequent the sea along the blue salt road, offer her a chance to capture and tame a man she can mould as her own. But taking a man of the Grey Seal Clan has dangerous repercussions that Flora cannot foresee. Harris’ sea shanty is based on a traditional ballad from Orkney, The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry, and is a story of passion, greed and revenge. The language is a joy, evocative and Immersive. Beautifully illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins, this small gem of a book is recommended to those that like their fairy stories a little Grimm, and seasoned with a twist of salt.
Wild And Crazy Guys by Nick de Semelyn
As someone who grew up on a steady diet of Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy movies, Nick de Semlyen’s Wild and Crazy Guys was an absolute joy to read from start to finish. Offering a fascinating, fraught and often very funny look at the life and times of the 1980s heyday of comedy in Hollywood, de Semlyen leaves no stone unturned in telling the story of the impulsive and eccentric stars behind countless classics of the time. A hazy, drug-fuelled era of egos and excess, the book captures the vivid ups and downs of life in the hallowed halls of Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon’s as well as offering insights on the making of everything from Ghostbusters to Beverly Hills Cop thanks to a glut of great interviews and meticulously researched behind-the-scenes details.
Little Weirds by Jenny Slate
This is not your typical book written by a celebrity. Instead of funny anecdotes from childhood and tales about ‘making it big’ in Hollywood, Jenny Slate’s (most well-known for her role as Mona-Lisa Saperstein on Parks And Recreation) Little Weirds is a series of unique personal essays on love, womanhood, intimacy and much more. Written after what she calls “pummelling heartbreak”, Slate takes us inside her mind with astounding vulnerability and creativity. From comparing herself to a Parisian croissant to wistfully reimagining her divorce, she never flinches away from the goriness of it all; the loneliness and the pain, especially, are conveyed so vividly, they feel almost too raw for strangers like us to experience. “I really, really needed to understand that solitude is different than abandonment,” Slate once said. “I just could never tell the difference before.” This book is her journey towards doing just that.
The Plague Stones by James Brogden
Folk horror and history mix with modern corruption and bureaucracy in this effective and chilling tale from Brit author James Brodgen. Twin timelines see the Feenan family move from a dodgy estate to a seemingly idyllic village as part of a mysterious inheritance, but their seeming good fortune comes with a catch when they learn they must act as custodian of a sacred stone which wards off an ancient evil. Meanwhile, back in the 14th century, young landowner’s daughter Hester tries to save her village which is struck down with plague…
Body horror and social commentary sit side by side in a novel that’s smart, insightful and empathetic – it’s also crying out for a movie adaptation.
The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman
The second volume in Phillip Pullman’s follow up series to His Dark Materials, The Secret Commonwealth is a sprawling, complex, disturbing, frustrating, life affirming mess of a book. While lacking the narrative propulsion of its predecessors and often waylaid by subplots of questionable necessity, that’s kind of the point in a book that’s all about the beauty and mystery of the moment. It provides a fascinating counterpoint to many of the perceived ideas espoused by the earlier books, questioning the value of rational thinking if it strips life of its colour and mysteries. Pullman imbues this new volume with a peculiar spirituality that enriches, rather than contradicts, the atheist sensibilities of the original trilogy. Unquestionably not for children, The Secret Commonwealth offers a bittersweet answer to the question of what happened to Lyra Silvertongue, proving that Pullman’s epic saga has grown up along with his audience. Imperfect but essential.
Making Moon – A British Sci-Fi Cult Classic by Nathan Parker
Earlier this year, a live orchestra performed Clint Mansell’s atmospheric score to a screening of Duncan Jones’ debut feature Moon at London’s Barbican Centre. The event, like this handsome book, was in celebration of the film’s tenth anniversary (yes, yes, time’s winged chariot. The grave approaches for us all.) Written by Simon Ward, Making Moon is not only a solid read for fans of the 2009 film, but also an instructive case study for any would-be filmmaker. It tells the story of how this memorable, intensely human story was made (and very nearly not made) for a budget of just $5 million thanks to the ingenuity of its ‘band of brothers’ creators. It celebrates the work of model-making genius Bill Pearson, actor Sam Rockwell, the visual effects team and details the creativity it took to finance the picture with a heap of behind-the-scenes insights (including some stuff on the development of Jones’ Netflix release Mute). Highly recommended.
Haverscroft – S.A. Harris
In a bid to save her failing marriage, Kate Keeling moves to Haverscroft House, only to find that there is more going on in the house than meets the eye. S.A. Harris delivers a wonderfully spooky story that really delivers on both atmosphere and tension. It’s not a book that reinvents the wheel, but rather celebrates the ghost story genre by spinning common tropes and themes into something that inspires both shivers and goosebumps. It’s a book made for readers who love Rebecca or The Turn Of The Screw, where secrets fester and a woman’s sanity is under threat.
Who Am I Again? by Lenny Henry
In Who Am I, Again? Henry takes us right back to his childhood in Dudley, growing up in challenging circumstances, one hand with a strict but loving mother pushing the entire family to intergrate into British society and on the other a society that wasn’t willing or able to accept anybody different into their communities. Henry weaves hilarious family stories in with truly heartbreaking accounts of the torrent of racism he had to encounter on his journey to one of the UK’s most beloved entertainers. One such being a soul-destroying account of a childhood friendship of toy sharing and daily playdates which were severed in a letterbox altercation which would break even the coldest of hearts.
However, in true Henry style, there is never a moment to wallow or become bitter as he makes his way up the comedy ranks, playing unfriendly comedy clubs (and turning the room into his favour), winning New Faces and becoming part of the TV establishment.
There is time for reflection and even questioning of certain career choices (it is a fasninating read to see him pick apart his role in the Minstral Show for example) and of his early life, with the inclusion of beautiful graphic novel pains that tell the story of Henry finding out who his biological father was.
Ultimately Henry’s story (and this is only part of it – two more books are to follow to cover the 80s and beyond) is hugely inspirational and is a living breathing picture of growing up as a Black British child in the 60s and 70s, finding fame and starting a journey which would lead to him becoming a Knight of the Realm.
You won’t read anything as honest, heartbreaking or funny this year.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Arguably this year’s biggest literary event and the joint-winner of the 2019 Booker prize (alongside Bernadine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other), Margaret Atwood’s sequel to 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale hardly needs any more publicity, but it’s getting some here because it deserves the praise. If you’ve read feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale or watched the staggeringly good Hulu TV adaptation, you’ll want to read The Testaments, which is that rare combination of a rollicking thriller with major political nous told one of our greatest living writers. Essential.
Complete Darkness by Matt Adcock
Meet Cleric20 and his robot sidekick, GiX, a retired Godbot. Cleric20 is a dissolute loner, muddling through life in future London (L2). Enter the dystopian future driven by a satanic President Razour, and an army of A.I. soldiers and BattlemaGes* at his command. Omnipotent government is everywhere, plugged into peoples’ thoughts and emotions through cyber tech. And mankind is plummeting towards hell. Literally. Sharp, wry and funny, with a dose of theology for good measure, Adcock imbues his dystopian future with wit, drawing numerous narrative threads together with skill, and a host of explanatory footnotes and acronyms that on occasion boggled my not particularly scientific mind. Jump aboard L2, embrace the darkness and enjoy the ride.
Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight-Hardie
It’s the sweltering summer of 1976 and sixteen year old Nif is forced to move to a tiny Welsh village as her family attempts to come to terms with the accidental drowning of her sister. Nif practices her own brand of witchcraft and when a local teen takes an interest in her, sinister events begin to unfurl. Water Shall Refuse Them delights in its folk horror leanings as well as using the Welsh landscape to stunning effect. Lucie McKnight Hardy’s debut is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson in its calm narration and Nif is a character who lingers long in the memory.
Strange Planet: The Comic Sensation Of The Year by Nathan Pyle
If the words “I crave star damage” pass through your mind whenever you see a tanned torso on an exotic beach holiday tube ad, then you’ve already met the work of New York cartoonist Nathan Pyle. A hit webcomic artist (he’s @nathanwpylestrangeplanet on Instagram), his single to four-panel cartoons featuring alien-ish humanoid creatures narrating banal life experiences highlight the absurdity of social convention and human tradition. The odd one-bounce of a handshake, the giving of dead flowers on Valentine’s Day, the not-remotely-fresh drinking of vintage wine… his skewed take on the day-to-day is funny, warm, instantly relatable and once seen, pretty much unforgettable. This book, collecting the Strange Planet panels, makes a lovely gift.
A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder by Holly Jackson
It should come as no surprise that the author of this compelling YA mystery is a true-crime nut. Holly Jackson is a self-confessed binger of podcasts like Serial and TV docs like Making A Murderer, and she fuelled that obsession into her debut novel, which sees a Nancy Drew-esque heroine – A-star student Pippa – investigating the murder of a local schoolgirl. The twist: the girl was killed five years ago and her assailant was arrested by police. But what if the police got it wrong? Cleverly unravelling her mystery via journal entries, interview transcripts, maps and more, Jackson weaves a gripping yarn that never goes where you expect and feels chillingly authentic. The really good news? Sequel Good Girl, Bad Blood is out in April 2020. Get ready for your new obsession.
Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James
The first in a brand new fantasy trilogy from Man Booker winner Marlon James, Black Leopard Red Wolf tells the story of a disparate group of allies united in a search for a missing boy. The fantasy that James creates is infused with African folklore and provides an exciting new world for a familiar genre plot. It’s an initially tricky book to get into, but when it clicks into gear, James’ fantasy is an exciting, hallucinatory trip across a dangerous and wild landscape. The second and third instalments of the trilogy will explore the same events as Black Leopard Red Wolf in a Rashomon style story of shifting perspectives and uncertain truths.
The Migration by Helen Marshall
Floods, storms, landscapes swept away: but in The Migration it’s not only terrain that is altered by climate change. Something is happening to teenagers all over the world – an auto-immune disease is slowly killing them. And there are rumours that their corpses are starting to change too.
You could label this as a fresh take on zombies, or climate fiction, but really it’s a creation all of its own, mixing different and surprising elements for a confronting – but far from hopeless – look at humanity’s future. It’ll stay in your mind long after reading it.
Aliya Whiteley (whose novel Skein Island, published by Titan Books, is out now)
Growing Things by Paul Tremblay
A short story collection from the author of A Head Full Of Ghosts, The Cabin At The End Of The World and Disappearance At Devil’s Rock, this anthology includes tie-ins to his previous novels as well as brand new stand alones. Often ambiguous, frequently disturbing and occasionally experiemental, this is Tremblay flexing his muscles in various different directions and would work as an introduction to the author’s work as well as delivering Easter eggs to established fans.
Highlights include tense tale The Teacher where students are forced to watch a disturbing video frame by frame, choose your own adventure style chiller A Haunted House Is A Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken and massively meta reflection on horror writing Notes From The Dog Walkers.
Also highly recommended by our writers:
– Children Of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Hachette USA)
– The Last by Hanna Jameson (Penguin)
– The July Girls by Phoebe Locke (Wildfire)
– The Offing by Benjamin Myers (Bloomsbury Circus)
– Uki And The Outcasts by Kieran Larwood (Faber & Faber)
– Other Words For Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin (Titan Books)