Monday, 7 December 2015

Living In A Serial World - The Sequel

In my opinion, any time is a good time to get stuck into a great book series, but there are two optimal seasons of the year for it: the first is the summer, when you’re going on holidays and want to slip seamlessly from one book to the other on the beach. The second is winter, when a good long series is just an excuse to stay put on the sofa. Back in June I wrote a list of recommended series, but since then I’ve discovered or thought of a few more, and with Christmas creeping closer I thought now was a good time to pass on the new discoveries so you’re all set for the holidays. Bit more of a mix, here – you’ll see some detectives, some fantasy and some pretty gritty YA. As before, images are taken from the first book in each series. Get stuck in.

The Tomorrow Series by John Marsden (7 books, with a sequel trilogy)
I’m going to get this one out of the way fairly early because, whilst it’s an amazing series, it’s also incredibly bleak at times. Set in Australia, a group of teens make a camping trip into a remote part of the bush. When they try to return about 5 days later, however, they find that their town has been invaded by an unknown hostile nation, and all their families imprisoned in the Showground (where, conveniently for the invaders, the town had all gathered to celebrate Commemoration Day). The teens, living in the 90’s without the internet or mobile phones, have no idea how much of the country is affected, or what’s happened to their families. They have two choices, then: surrender to the invaders and hope for the best, or try to avoid their clutches by waiting out the war and occasionally waging guerrilla warfare (guess which option they pick...). If this sounds far-fetched that's because it is a bit, but the way the story is handled is not: this isn’t a few kids digging ditches to make people’s ankles twist, or siphoning petrol out of trucks (much how I imagine the Famous Five would take care of ‘baddies’). People get maimed, captured and blown up; kids get killed and kill in turn. People suffer from PTSD and relationships change dramatically. I wasn’t expecting it to be as blood-soaked or grim as it was but for all that, I read the books compulsively and was at a bit of a loss when it was over.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen (3 books and counting)

The first in this series was one of those books where I saw it everywhere but refused to read it for ages, but when I eventually caved (as I always do), I found I'd been a stubborn ass who’d hurt only themselves because it's really, really good. At the beginning of the first book, Kelsea (stay with me – I know the name is a bit crap) is hiding out in the forest with her elderly foster parents. Kelsea is not like any other orphan, though – she’s the heir to the Tearling throne, which is currently under the corrupt rule of the Regent, her uncle, who wants her dead so he can rule as King. Then there’s the threat of the Red Queen, the sorceress who rules a neighbouring kingdom with a bloody fist and has a grip on the Tearling already - Kelsea’s ascension to the throne is not going to be an easy one, especially when only a handful of people know she lives. The best thing about this series is, you think you have the measure of it at the beginning – forgotten princess, corrupt relative, nemesis Queen, etc etc. You really, really don’t. These books are not quite fantasy, are a bit sci-fi, with some Game of Thrones-esque politics and most importantly, are utterly unputdownable.

The Cormoran Strike Novels by Robert Galbraith (3 books and counting)
I’ll start out by admitting: I have a few problems with these novels. Rowling (alias Galbraith) can write a great story, but there’s been barely any attempt to differentiate Cormoran Strike from any other modern detective. He drinks too much; he’s got a war record; his ex-girlfriend still exerts control over him even though he knows they’re bad together. His main USP is that he’s the bastard offspring of an aging rock-star and a super-groupie, which does get used from time to time in the series but on the whole is for character back story. That being said, they’re really enjoyable stories that keep you on your toes – the first novel in particular, The Cuckoo’s Calling, kept me guessing all the way through. You know that Cormoran’s relationship with his younger, dazzling secretary, Robin, is straight out of How To Write a Crime Novel 101 but you’re still invested all the same, and Robin’s professional and efficient approach to crime-solving contrasts typically - but nicely – with Cormoran’s own bull-in-a-china-shop attitude. I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you don’t mind your detectives being cut from the usual cloth, you’ll enjoy these. If you don’t – well, the crimes and criminals should still be enough to hook you, but you have been warned.

The Amy Lane Mysteries by Rosie Claverton (4 books, 1 novella and counting)
This (currently) ebook-only detective series is, to use a tired metaphor, a breath of fresh air in a fairly overcrowded detective market. Sure, it shares a few tropes with Cormoran Strike: odd-couple team? Check. Romantic tension? Check. Crotchety contact in the police who reluctantly helps out? Check. But the detective in question, Amy, is an agoraphobic hacker; her assistant Jason is her ex-con cleaner, and the action takes place in Cardiff and the surrounding countryside. The books rumble on at great pace and the storylines are really well plotted, but the appeal here is Amy: in a double-whammy, Claverton has created a main character with a debilitating mental illness who uses technology as the main way to solve crimes, rather than trying to dodge it for ruining the fun (‘Unfortunately, Detective McCrime’s electricity was cut off and his phone drowned in the whisky he’d drank last night, so it looked like he’d have crack this case, old-style… Just the way he liked it’.) if you like crime novels but you’re getting bored by the tropes, then these books are for you.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan (5 books)

First thing you should know about the Percy Jackson novels: they’re written with middle-grade kids in mind (is that year 7/8 in UK schools?). Second thing you should know about the Percy Jackson novels: that doesn’t matter one bit, because they’re extremely clever and fantastic fun. After being attacked by a harpy on a school trip, Percy is taken by his best friend Grover (who turns out to be a satyr) to Camp Halfblood, a summer camp for the offspring of Greek gods run by a disgraced Dionysus and Chiron the Centaur. There, he discovers that not only do the Gods exist and have children running around the world, but that he’s the son of one of the Big Three, Poseidon, and that his Uncle Zeus has got it in for him because he thinks he’s a thief. So begins Percy’s adventures as he struggles to prevent a war between the gods, and comes to terms with his own demi-god status. The stories are crammed through of retellings, allusions and easter eggs – my favourite being Medusa running a garden centre that specialises in statues – so there’s plenty here for people who are fans of Greek myths, but even if you’re not it’s still a great story. If you’ve seen the films, don’t be put off – Rick himself has never seen them because he had no involvement in the screenwriting or production, so you can be sure the books are much, much better.

The Baby Ganesh Detective Agency by Vaseem Khan (3 books and counting)

This one didn’t quite make it onto the list because it’s a new series with only this title currently available, and my criteria for this list was that there had to be at least two titles released with more to come.  But I couldn’t NOT give this one a mention because it was just so much fun to read. Again, like the Cormoran Strike novels it can be quite trope-y and a bit predictable, BUT THERE’S A BABY ELEPHANT IN IT (I’m not giving away any spoilers, it’s pretty much on the first page). On the day Inspector Chopra retires, two things happen: a young boy turns up seemingly drowned but possibly murdered, and Chopra’s uncle leaves him a baby elephant, Ganesh. I can neither confirm, nor deny, that Ganesh helps Chopra solve the mystery of the dead boy, but I can tell you that this was an utterly charming book with moments of genuine tension and even more genuine hilarity, and I’ll definitely be reading the second when it comes out.
UPDATE: two more books have since come out, at last legitimising the inclusion of this series in the list.

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