Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Staff Picks, Part III

Here's the rest of the bay!

Plots and Intrigue. Incompetent sky pirates. Dark magic. Airships everywhere. This first book in the Tales of the Ketty Jay series is a thoroughly enjoyable, thoroughly swashbuckling read. If you're still mourning the demise of Firefly, this series might cheer you up a bit (though NB, much like Firefly it has some brilliant-seeming female characters but also a certain amount of genderfail).

Sometimes you want to read about ideas. Sometimes you want to linger over beautiful prose or be presented with knotty moral problems, or discover new ways of looking at the world through reading. Other times, you want airships and explosions and plenty of wisecracks, and those are the times when you need this series. It's exciting, inventive, and just really, really good fun.

If you enjoy intelligent, original SFF and you haven't read anything by China Mi ville, you need to start now, and Embassytown is my top recommendation. It's a breathtakingly inventive book about language, lies and sentience - packed with juicy ideas, really alien aliens and the dazzlingly imaginative world-building we've come to expect from this author. I guarantee you've never read anything like it.

Mi ville has been one of my all-time favourite authors ever since Perdido Street Station first came out (/bookhipster). His fans tend to be divided into those who love his baroque fantasy novels stuffed with monsters and aliens (the Bas-Lag trilogy mostly, starting with Perdido Street Station) and those who like his slightly more restrained and thinky works, like The City & The City. I am absolutely 100% one of the former, but in my opinion Embassytown represents the best of both worlds, being stuffed full with both ideas and aliens. Which surely means that everybody will like it.

I love travel books that get under the skin of places, that let me know what it might really be like to live there, and this book does that brilliantly. Fifty essays about fifty states, by fifty different writers - some of them well-known, others less so. Some of them are deeply personal, others more historical or political in nature, while the best ones (in my opinion) are a blend of all three. My favourite essay is the one about Idaho (a state about which I knew absolutely nothing until I picked up this book!). As with all anthologies it's a bit hit-and-miss, but I very much enjoyed the great majority of the essays, and the only one I really remember disliking was California. Sorry, California.

This is the first in Barry Deutsch's brilliant graphic novel series about Mirka, a troll-fighting Orthodox Jewish girl who wants to be a dragon-slayer when she grows up - and if you're not intrigued by that premise, I honestly don't know what else to say. It's a funny, warm, and continually surprising book, and I promise you don't have to be Jewish to get the jokes. Mirka's second adventure is out now, and I believe a third is on its way.

I want to live inside Frances Hardinge's imagination. This book, her latest, is an inventive tale of plots and intrigue in the bewildering underground city of Caverna - a world governed by the byzantine social rituals of the Court, and swayed by strange food-based magics (you'll never look at cheese in the same way again). It's part fantasy of manners, part good old-fashioned adventure, with a resourceful and open-hearted heroine whom I might even be tempted to name a hypothetical child after - if she weren't called 'Neverfell'

I will never stop recommending Frances Hardinge to people. I do it all the time. I chose this one for my staff picks because it's a standalone, but if it appeals to you then you also really really need to check out and its sequel, . These two are all eighteenth-century-inspired picaresque fantasy, with seditious floating coffee houses and dangerous guilds and people in preposterous wigs, and her characters are so brilliant (the protagonist of these two, Mosca Mye, is completely different from Neverfell but just as wonderful) and you will love her. I have also met her in person at an SFF event of some description in Blackwell's, and am happy to report that she is super-nice and I would quite like to be her friend (sorry if that sounds creepy, I didn't mean it to).

A fascinating, unsettling collection of short stories by an author I really wish were better-known in the UK (she's actually very big in Japan, interestingly). My favourites are 'The Faery Handbag', about an immigrant grandmother who claims that her home village is hidden in her black handbag, and 'Magic for Beginners', about a group of schoolfriends and their obsession with the strangest TV show you'll ever read about. Quirky, dark and utterly delicious.

Kelly Link is kind enough to offer many of her stories to read FOR FREE on , so you can read a few and see if you like them. And then when you find out how brilliant they are you can buy the books.

I had an English teacher who described reading Angela Carter as 'like eating jam with a spoon' - such rich, dense, sticky prose. These stories span the world, from 17th-century Virginia to ancient Samarkand, via Massachusetts, Haiti and the forest of A Midsummer Night's Dream. These aren't entirely flights of fancy, though - they have an earthy realism, humanity and humour that always keeps your feet on the ground. I can't get enough of her writing (I have also been known to eat jam with a spoon, occasionally).

A bit of an obvious one, maybe, but I couldn't leave Angela Carter off my picks list. She's been so formative in my development as a reader, and I just really hoped that some bookish thirteen-year-old might pick up a copy from the shelf and be changed by it, just like I was.

There's an air of the fairy tale about this beautiful, slightly hallucinatory novel. Myth and mystery are threaded through the two intertwining narratives: the story of Mary, on a quest to get her little brother back from the Tall Men she believes stole him, and the story of Morgan, trapped in a Cinderella-like existence with her parents, both living on an island 'off the edge of the map', rich in myth and tradition and seemingly adrift in time. I've put this one and Black Venus next to one another because I'm pretty convinced that if you love Angela Carter, you will love Jess Richards. Her next novel, Cooking With Bones, has just come out in paperback, and is next on my reading list
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