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Where to begin with KJ Parker?

Devices and Desires
Devices and Desires

K.J. Parker is a cult author.

I don’t mean that in entirely in the colloquial sense, but in the semi-Lovecraftian waybooks talked about passionately, in hushed tones, by a cabal of true believers huddled in forbidden libraries and dark corners of basement bookshops. There are those that have stumbled upon Parker’s texts and worship them with a feverish intensity… and those that haven’t and are therefore unenlightened.

Needless to say, like any other cult, we Parker readers proselytise ceaselessly. There’s a gross, cosmic unfairness to the fact that we, who have been enlightened, are surrounded by the darkness of human ignorance. But, of course, we keep trying. The stakes are too high.

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The Best Books of Our Time: 1901 - 1925

According to The Best Books of Our Time: 1901 - 1925, A clue in the literary labyrinth for home library builders, booksellers and librarians, consisting of a list of 1,000 best books selected by the best authorities accompanies by critical descriptions written and compiled by Asa Don Dickinson, Librarian of the University of Pennsylvania, Author of 1,000 Best Books. 

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Where to begin with Jane Gaskell?


Her books feature gorgeous settings, icy protagonists; batshit worlds and beautiful words. Strange plots and great prose... welcome to Jane Gaskell's weird fantasy!

First, there are no Gaskell ebooks, because life is cruel. Fortunately, super-cheap Amazon Marketplace copies aren’t hard to find, and you can build out your Gaskell collection for a few quid. Two problems though. The naming/editions can be annoying, especially in the Atlan series, so use ISFDB to make sure you’re getting the right book. Also, some of her books - the best ones, at that - can be very difficult to find.

The latter category includes her very first book, and a very good place to start...

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The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (2014)

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Claire North's The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014) is a brand new book about two very old topics: time travel and the apocalypse (aversion thereof). I have to confess, I went into this novel a bit jaded. Time travel - be it relating to wives, doctors or serial killers - has been everywhere lately. As has, frankly, the apocalypse. I couldn't see how Harry August would have anything to add into the mix.

I was, of course, wrong. I like this book because, rationally, it takes a new approach to two of the oldest tropes in science fiction. And I love it because Harry August himself is such a brilliant character.

Let's start with the latter.

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Keeper by Mal Peet (2003)


Mal Peet's Keeper (2003) was a recommendation from a friend, who referred to it as the book that made him into a writer. He's a very good writer, so that's one hell of an endorsement. And he was right: Keeper is a terrific book, combining the known mechanics of sport with a type of ecological mysticism. It is a ghost story, a coming of age tale and a fantasy that's uniquely its own.

El Gato is the best football player in the world: a goalkeeper that's completely without peer. He's just won the World Cup, and, throughout Keeper, that ugly/beautiful trophy is always within our field of view. Keeper is structured as an interview - the reclusive El Gato is baring his soul to journalist Paul Faustino. Faustino, originally just keen on a few pretty pictures and some quotes, realises that he's bitten off more than he can chew, as El Gato's story goes all night, and into the morning.

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Where to begin with China Miéville?

The Last Days of New Paris
The Last Days of New Paris

China Miéville’s books range freely across categories and classifications – epic and urban fantasy, hard and squishy science fiction, crime, horror, young adult and more. He addresses, dances with and ultimately departs from the traditions and expectations of every genre. Although many thousands of words have been written trying to put Miéville’s work into neat buckets, a China Miéville book is ultimately, well – Miévillian. He is a category unto himself.

And what is Miévillian? ‘Tremendous’, ‘mind-blowing’ and ‘unmitigated brilliance’ are all true, but they’re not very helpful. The trick is to look at the books’ shared qualities. A Miévillian book provides glorious entertainment, powerful themes, intellectual depth, joyous wordplay, subversive approaches and with a few rare exceptions, monsters.

Each and every one of his books is an award-winner, a critical darling, and a reader favourite. So where to begin?

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Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell (2013)


Katherine Rundell's Rooftoppers (2013) is charming to the point of Disneyfication, a collection of adorable figures and improbable coincidences that would be utterly saccharine if it didn't work so damn well.

Sophie is an orphan - the survivor of a shipwreck, found floating in a cello case and claimed by an eccentric bachelor, Charles. Charles raises her in the best goofily cinematic fashion: they write on the walls, eat jam for every meal, climb on the roof and replace formal schooling with lots of Shakespeare. Sophie doesn't even wear dresses - Charles gives her trousers instead, the crazy fool.

Well, naturally the Welfare people (a YA novel where the state is the villain? What are the odds?!) don't like this arrangement. Charles isn't raising Sophie as a lady and they're going to put her in an orphanage instead. Charles and Sophie do the sensible thing and scamper over to Paris, prompted, in part, by Sophie discovering a Parisian address in her cello case.

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The Rental Heart by Kirsty Logan (2014)

The Rental Heart
The Rental Heart
Kirsty Logan's The Rental Heart (2014) is a slim volume that packs a whale of a punch. Although the collection's 20 stories are all (to generalise wildly) on the theme of 'love', it captures a huge variety of emotional nuance: from heartbreak to resentment to loneliness to pure, unwatered desire.

Logan's style is deceptively ephemeral - the stories are often phrased like fairytales or delivered like children's stories, but they're neither: they're meaty, visceral and, on most occasions, utterly ruthless. Virtually all are genre-inflected: Logan captures twenty worlds where relationships are unbounded by the 'rules' - physical or otherwise.

A personal favourite is "Underskirts", the story of a beautiful countess who hand-picks peasant girls to become her lovers. Told from a dozen different points of view, the tale is alternately horrifying and uplifting - is the countess the saviour or the villainess of the piece? The story spirals in closer and closer, with every perspective adding something new to the mix.

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