Finished that pile of books you'd set aside and been meaning to read? Now find yourself scratching about for something else? Aces. I've got three very different books to recommend.
AND THE STARS WERE BURNING BRIGHTLY
I've been banging on about this book on twitter recently for good reason. I started it about a month ago and after reading the prologue I had to put it down and wait. Why? The prologue was was full of poetic soulfulness that hinted at sorrow and mystery and beauty, and I knew it was a book I'd want to maroon myself with for a while.
We are introduced to a narrator called Al, a young man in school obsessed with art and the stars. We find out immediately that Al has taken his own life. I'm not going to hide that this story is painted onto a canvas of grief and sorrow and anger. But the colours and brushstrokes bring hope, love, and compassion. The young characters are daubed into life with recognisable flaws but Jawando prompts our empathy at every turn. We sympathise with the conflict and root for Al's young brother Nate, and Megan, the girl who shared Al's passion for Art and also understood feeling like an outsider.
The story is Nate's search for answers about Al's suicide, and as this quest opens up more questions there is a momentum building as we approach Al's funeral. How do we cope with grief? How do we rationalise and move on from loss? Especially a loss that feels profoundly unfair and who do we blame?
The combination of effortless poetic imagery and the struggle of the central characters to verbalise their thoughts and find the right words is, at times, heartbreaking. Whilst reading, it felt necessary to pause for a tea break and to ponder what I'd just read. But this also felt like a cheat, giving myself time to be composed and think about how I felt was a luxury that the characters themselves - and us in real life - don't often get. Days after closing the book I‘m still finding myself drifting back and thinking about Al, and Nate, and Megan, and that tells me I've read a book that I'll always remember and go back to.
CHILDREN OF TIME
Have you found yourself wondering about the future of the human race? Maybe? Just a little bit. I understand.
Last year was the 50th Anniversary of the first Moon landing and as I was working in primary schools, it prompted a lot of interesting questions about human beings traveling into space. Where might we go? Could we find a home elsewhere? How might the human race evolve living in space or on a different planet? I can say that none of us came up with any answer that came close to the premise of Adrian Tchaikovsky's Children of Time. To give a teensy clue, it's a bit like watching the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey and asking "but what if a different species evolved to be the dominant force on earth?" and then pick an animal NOTHING LIKE A HUMAN BEING. Which is fitting, I guess, as this book comes with the stamp of approval of an Arthur C Clarke award.
The plan of human beings in this story is to "seed" a terraformed planet with animals that will be super charged with fast tracking evolutionary DNA. But a mishap means it's not pre-humans that get supercharged and we are instead embedded with a new species from the dawn of their civilisation through to their own first steps beyond their world. We are given Portia - an incredible heroine to lead us through this startling new world. Portia's civilisation is under threat - from outside and inside as her species struggles with the construct of its society. The longevity of the story - set over generations - is ingeniously propelled by the capability of this species to pass on knowledge with their DNA. This is just one of the concepts in Children of Time that made me grin with delight. Portia and her descendants must be ready for the immediate threat, but also the threat that we know they must always face before we reach the end - the threat of humans.
It is a story that is breathtaking in its scope and and dazzling with detail to satisfy all your questions about how it would be possible. From just a story structure point of view the scale of the architecture that Tchaikovsky has lavished with imaginative detail would be worthy of a recommendation alone. It is the connection to the fundamental questions we have about what makes us who we are that elevates this to something profound and spiritual.
As with all great sci-fi Children of Time takes us on an epic journey to then turn a Hubble like lens back on ourselves to throw the patriarchy, religion, and morality into vivid and awe inspiring vistas. Like going on your own space flight there is a transition at the beginning as your gravity shifts and you acclimatise to the new environment but once you adjust it is one hell of a ride. Thankfully, you can strap in for the long haul as last year a sequel - Children of Ruin - came into orbit and it sling shots you even further into the majesty of this new reality.
IF I NEVER MET YOU
Right. Look. If you've missed out on Mhairi McFarlane so far then take solace in the fact you now have six books that will become like the best friends you didn't know you needed. You know when you find a new favourite TV show and it's a little like falling in love when you want to know more about them and spend more time with them and you find yourself gushing about it to your friends and then your fiends start to warn you about obsessing and frowning at your new screen saver and phone background that is a picture of your new love and your family wonder who you've spending all this time with? ... Yeah? That's what it's like with a McFarlane novel. To be honest, I think that should be enough. Go. Go treat yourself.
But...well If I Never Met You manages to somehow elevate all of that a notch. Maybe it's the element of a caper in this story that adds a certain 50s movie era charm that recalls Hepburn and Grant. McFarlane is a certified WIZARD at dialogue that zings and fizzes and begs to be quoted or added to a picture to share on social media so your friends can add knowing GIFs and emoji's to show that they get your coolness. Here, that delicious wordplay is even tastier.
In some rom-coms, the supporting cast can look like cheap coasters in a nice hotel room. Sure, they do a job and have a function but they don't really add anything and they're soon forgotten. Not here. Nope. These are coasters that you want to stick in your bag and steal along with that nice smelling conditioner in the bathroom. No question, the leads Laurie and Jamie are the the chic boutique room you'll always remember but McFarlane wants you to remember the whole experience. Everything serves a purpose and adds to the experience. You can see the work setting and homes and bars as clearly as if you were watching any lifestyle programme or hip new sitcom. Those details and the supporting cast provide a a secure platform for the main story.
Laurie and Dan have been together for 18 years, since meeting at Uni. They have the relationship everyone else thinks they want. Comfortable, best friends, SOLID. Laurie's disorientation and loss of self when Dan suddenly ends it is achingly familiar to anyone that has had to ensure anything similar. But Laurie's plan to deal with it is delightfully less familiar. There is a joyful switch between thinking "I know where this is going" and seeing it expertly delivered by McFarlane before she has great fun in spinning 180 with the unexpected. I read one such sneaky below the belt punch and genuinely said out loud "NO FUCKING WAY!" before having to put the book down and get a strong G&T before carrying on. The questions of how do we know if what we feel is real, and can we trust someone else when they tells us how they feel, are both simple and incredibly complex and the story and writing has this duality too - it's as pleasing a mix as your favourite cocktail. Which I recommend having ready whilst you read.