I am having to fight the urge to let this year’s reading project (only read books by women) from becoming its own sub-group (only reading books by one woman called Claire North). More broadly though, as we’re almost at the halfway point, it’s worth noting that I’ve discovered more books that I properly love this year than in any that I can remember. Star ratings are nonsense, but with that said I’ve so far given seven books the full rating on Goodreads in the five months since 2017 began. In 2016 I gave seven books the same rating, but across the whole twelve months. There’s a lot to be said for putting your old favourites aside for a bit.
Here then are the books I read in May.
The Three, Sarah Lotz – A series of interview transcripts, articles, emails, letters, and forum discussions covering the strange events following four simultaneous plane crashes in different parts of the world, three of which are survived by a single child. While the American religious right seize upon their miraculous escapes to paint them as signs of the End Times and ride the furore to power, other conspiracies and oddities spring up elsewhere in the world, from the internationally consequential to the relatively mundane. Where this story has power it is between the lines. It makes much of the unreliability and partiality of the various narrators, some of which are outright unconvincing while others are harder to read. However this is also a narrative weakness. The book covers so much ground, and brings in so many viewpoints, that I ended up caring little for the individuals even while I was caught up in the big picture.
The Three is a mystery in the truest sense, refusing to give hard answers to the questions it invokes regarding the children and the nature of their survival. Even at the end, having given its evidence, it steps away from a conclusion, leaving matters opaque. It’s a trick that leaves matter to your imagination and I enjoyed tremendously, but I can see why so many readers walk away frustrated. I found the story occasionally creepy, often surprisingly, and just a little bit unsettling in how well it captures the slow build of mass hysteria and its unpredictable consequences.
The Serpent, Claire North – A lyrical little wonder, this novella set in Seventeenth Century Venice. It’s the first of three in which games are enacted by players using the world for a board. In this case a woman called Thene, abused by life and her husband, enters the Gameshouse and discovers a world in which she quickly excels, until she is playing a complex game of chess for full membership, on an unbalanced board, against players with every bit her motivation. Blending a richly observed, compactly expressed history with an overtone of otherworldliness, the story darts through the peaks and troughs of a shifting, complex battle of wits with an even, graceful rhythm that’s utterly hypnotic. It’s like a sharp-edged lullaby, and with its conclusion I’m jumping straight into the next instalment.
Touch, Claire North – There are creatures among us, ghosts if you like, who at the moment of their death jumped to the body of a person in contact with them and took over. They retain the ability, leaping from body to body through extensive lives, leaving behind a trail of people who have lost time and know not where. Kepler is one such ghost, reasonably moral as these things goes (it likes to leave the lives it borrows better off than it found them). When one day it is subject to an assassination attempt meant for for the ghost and not the body it borrows, it abducts its would be killer by jumping into him, and thus begins an unlikely and not remotely consensual partnership as Kepler tries to unravel the lies that have led to it being hunted by an organisation with powerful resources.
Touch is another brilliantly high concept twist on something familiar – in this case the road movie – and while it’s often mind-bending (certain action sequences where Kepler leaps from body to body in desperate terror are dizzying), it’s also incredibly precise and deeply thrilling. Once again Claire North presents incredibly complex scenarios with charming, often witty grace, leaving you with the feeling that you’re reading something utterly new, that hasn’t been done before (some of it has, but the freshness North injects makes you feel otherwise). It doesn’t have quite the same sense of grand stakes played for as The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, and loses a little of its energy towards the back end, but when the worst you can say about an amazing novel is that it’s not quite as tight as that OTHER amazing novel by the same author, life is good.
The Thief, Claire North – A second visit to the Gameshouse, where games are played in the real world, for the highest of stakes. This time the game is Hide & Seek, but the board is now Thailand in the Thirties. Remy is our player, and he has drunkenly entered into a mismatched contest in which he – a tall white man easily spotted in a crowd – must hide within the borders of the country while his Asian opponent draws on the resources of the police, the military, and the government to hunt him down.
Once again, the story is told with deft, precise observations, but the threat here is more personal than the first story (Remy has bet all of his memories and experiences), and so the race more keenly felt. In the background of what is otherwise a tense but straightforward game of cat and mouse it becomes clearer that there is something awry at the Gameshouse, for there are supposed to be interventions when so imbalanced a game is proposed. The conclusion here is smart and credible, and the way left open for the final instalment, which I’m about to jump straight into.
The Gospel of Loki, Joanne M. Harris – A retelling of Norse mythology from the viewpoint of Loki, who it turns out is just a poor, misunderstood flower who only wants to be loved. The book starts out as an exceptionally shallow farce, reducing the gods to pantomime caricatures of near pratfall and custard pie proportions. Later, with little effort put into the transition, it’s an exceptionally shallow attempt at epic fantasy that I didn’t buy into for a moment, because nobody on the page had been sold to me as a investable character. It’s so direct a telling of events from the sagas that there is no surprise at all, given so little examination that there’s little point in engaging with it. We’re expected to understand that it is epic because we’re loosely familiar with the source material, but there’s no effort made to actually sell anything to us. It feels almost insultingly lazy.
The final slap comes in the form of a deeply smug and self-satisfied narrator, Loki himself, who is at great pains to protest his good intentions and outline how he is backed into his various schemes almost against his will, but who isn’t at all credible in this regard. Whether he’s intended to be genuine in his apologist whinings or a deliberately unreliable narrator wasn’t clear to me, but either way his actions are so far removed from his seeming intent that the endeavour sinks. Bad liar or gullible cretin makes no odds – I disliked him not with a passion, but with a weary sort of sneer. If the intention is to create a revisionist version of the Trickster then it falls flat. Loki is less sympathetic, and more irritatingly pitiable.
For me, this book failed to deliver any of the promises it appears to make at the outset. Your mileage may vary.