The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
A story that does an awful lot in a short space – The Stars My Destination is strikingly efficient with its seemingly simple tale of revenge, yet spans a richly imagined intergalactic future and shines a light on some very well-realised emotions. Gulliver Foyle is a fascinatingly horrible protagonist – and, like him, the cast of side-characters and big set-pieces create immediate, memorable impressions as he goes on his vengeful journey. It doesn’t need much more introduction – that’s time that could be better spent reading the book – so, if you haven’t, go right ahead.
The Anti-Pope by Robert Rankin
Robert Rankin is something of a cult legend in the UK, but this was my first foray into his work. He has a splendid array of absurd titles, and, if The Anti-Pope is anything to go by, even more absurd stories. It’s urban fantasy, but not as you know it – a touch of the irreverent humour of Douglas Adams, a splash of magic and horror and, crucially important, a good old-fashioned cast of London drunks. In this story of a world-threatening demonic cult, Rankin perfectly captures the nature and nuances of the deplorable regulars you’re likely to find in any local UK boozer. It meanders a bit, focused more on the boozing than the coming threat, and has some fairly dated representations of women, but you’ll certainly be immersed in the world. For better or worse!
Perdido Street Station by China Meiville
Meiville builds an incredibly creative and well-realised world with far too much detail to support an otherwise fairly thin story. This gritty urban (steampunkish) fantasy puts the city at forefront, which lends itself to some superb ideas, but to my tastes precious little of its world-building adds anything to the plot – padding the action out too much. It’s difficult to care about what happens, though it occasionally hits some thrilling beats – and I couldn’t help but feel there were the makings of a superb book here, if it’d only been about 300 pages shorter. If you want to be transported to another, rather depressing, world, for a long time, then it’s well worth a go – otherwise it’s a bit of a chore.
Killing Floor by Lee Child
The now impossibly famous Jack Reacher’s first outing – a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time sets our hard-as-nails hero on a collision course with your run-of-the-mill corrupt small town businessmen. It’s easy to see how the Reacher legend found its wings; he’s the archetype tough-guy without roots and his sledgehammer visit to town moves too quickly for you to stop and pick holes. Though after you finish you might reflect that it’s riddled with implausible plot points and could use some serious editing (Ctr-H – Replace All – “shrug”, and you’ll cut about 50% of the characters’ actions). Just don’t overthink it. Get it here.
Word Made Flesh by Jack O’Connell
Jack O’Connell’s Quinsigamond novels exist in a gritty and compelling world with an immediately recognisable atmosphere. This industrial noir brings together threads covering bent cops, underworld lowlifes, holocaust survivors and mad writers – in a story that perhaps never quite becomes more than the sum of its parts, but is fascinating to watch unfold. There’s some truth that Word Made Flesh has great style over plot substance, and I’d venture the story gets a little tired (perhaps mostly because of its rather unlikeable protagonist) – but the images at work here are enthrallingly grotesque and acutely realised – evident from a truly striking opening chapter.
Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher
There are ideas in here which can really warp the way you think about language and perception. But only in the way that you twist your mind in knots with questions like what does water taste like. The thought activity is more rewarding than the result. The most interesting part of this book, for me, was retracing the investigations of Prime Minister William Gladstone into ancient texts’ descriptions of colour. In short, when they describe everything in blacks and reds, is it because they didn’t perceive blue? Combined with a number of similar explorations, though, the book notes there’s not a lot of evidence that not having words for something doesn’t mean we see it differently. Still interesting food for thought – and I’ll leave it with one of its more curious points, why do we have so few words to describe the full spectrum of taste?