Today I’m writing about some of the books I picked for my very own bay of staff picks, back in October. I’m starting with the one that sold the most copies, but apart from that they’re not in any particular order.
Lynch’s debut novel is a well-written and supremely entertaining work of fantasy fiction, with a diverse cast of characters and an intricate, satisfying plot. Con-man Locke’s nail-biting attempts to stay one step (or at least half a step) ahead of danger are played out against the backdrop of a superbly inventive fantasy world which manages to avoid most of the usual tropes.
As well as being a Master of Plot and a hugely enjoyable writer, Lynch is an author I consider to be generally Good at representing women and POC – although the second book in the series was much better than the first in this respect. I particularly appreciate how he doesn’t default to male for his super-minor, unnamed characters – the guard at the castle gate or the person unloading cargo at the docks is just as likely to be female as male, which is something I think a lot of authors overlook when they’re trying to portray gender-equal fantasy worlds. The third book in the series came out in October after a long hiatus, which (if we’re honest) is probably the reason why this one topped my Staff Picks chart!
One of my teachers lent me this book when I was at school, when I was first starting to take an interest in Japanese culture. The author lived in southern Japan for a number of years, and this is the story of his journey from the southernmost tip of the country to the northernmost in one springtime, following the ‘cherry blossom front’. Funny, informative and often moving, it remains my favourite travel book about Japan. I often recommend it to people who I see buying one of those awful books which is basically the author going ‘I went to Japan for two weeks and it was like being on another PLANET, there are temples and neon and it’s all so CONTRADICTORY. Let me tell you some things about how Japanese people think’.
Sei Shōnagon served at the court of the Japanese Empress Teishi in around the year 1000 CE. This is her diary, in which she recorded daily events, court gossip, snippets of poetry and idiosyncratic lists (‘Infuriating Things’, ‘Elegant Things’, ‘Awkward Things’…) with an approach which has been compared to that of a modern blogger. She’s stylish, intelligent, and very funny – keenly observant of her world, and shockingly disdainful of ‘commoners’ and of any court gentlemen who don’t meet her high expectations. If you only ever read one thousand-year-old Japanese classic, this should be it.
I’d recommend the McKinney translation over the earlier one by Ivan Morris – and this is one of very few texts where I feel comfortable recommending a particular translation, because I’ve read both and also translated substantial parts of the text myself. If you enjoy this and fancy reading another diary by a Japanese court lady with a very different outlook on things, I’d recommend the Kagerō Diary by Michitsuna’s Mother (real name unknown) (trans. Sonja Arntzen) – though I got that one from the SOAS library, and I don’t know how easy it is to get hold of if you aren’t a student.
Natalie Babbitt’s work is very well-known in her native USA, but sadly doesn’t seem to have made the transition to the UK. This book tells the story of ten-year-old Winnie Foster and her unusual friendship with the Tuck family, who accidentally became immortal some hundred-odd years ago after an incident with a magic spring. It’s one for all ages – both an engaging and lovely children’s story, and a surprisingly sophisticated meditation on the nature of life and death. It’s a book that’s really stuck with me (actually, all the books I’ve read by her have really stuck with me – The Search for Delicious is another great one), and I still find myself thinking about it a lot.
I can’t understand why Margaret Elphinstone isn’t better known – she’s a stunning writer with a knack for choosing really interesting settings and themes for her work. This book, set in Mesolithic Scotland, is my favourite of hers. The events in the book are triggered by a geologically documented natural disaster, but the focus of the story is the small band of hunter-gatherers it affects, and the relationships between them. It’s an absorbing, intelligent read, and a vivid and meticulously-researched picture of life in a time unimaginably distant from ours.
I like to describe this book as ‘E. Nesbit meets Edgar Rice Burroughs’ – imagine the Victorians discovered space travel and found themselves on Burroughs’ Mars (among other unlikely places). Or, imagine Nesbit’s characters Oswald and Dora Bastable living on an asteroid orbiting Earth, instead of in a house on the outskirts of London. Or…forget the comparisons, just read this gloriously funny and original steampunky space adventure. And then read everything else Reeve has ever written.
Bonus recommendation: Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve
When I ended my shelftalker above by exhorting people to ‘read everything else Reeve has ever written’, I was thinking in particular of this book and its sequels. Mortal Engines was the first thing I ever read by Philip Reeve (when it first came out, I might add /bookhipster): I absolutely loved it, and I think it’s fair to say that it’s influenced my reading habits to this day (as well as forever changing the way I see St Paul’s Cathedral). I considered having the first book in the tetralogy as a staff pick instead of Larklight, but unfortunately the current editions are plagued by some truly appalling covers (referred to, at least by me and my colleagues, as ‘the X-Box covers’), and I didn’t think anybody would pick them up looking like that. I mean, would you?
Despite the covers, they are beautiful, moving, exciting and incredibly inventive stories, steampunky in the ruthless, brutal, ‘world shredding itself to death on the spindle of industry’ way that steampunk should be (in my opinion), and feature one of my favourite female characters ever, Hester Shaw. Agh, just writing about them is making me want to read them all over again. If this seems like your sort of thing then don’t let the new covers put you off – you’ll be missing out on something wonderful.
That’s about half a bay’s-worth of staff picks, but this post is getting quite long, so I’m going to end this instalment here. Another eight picks to come next time!