First up is The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway, his debut novel. I loved this book to death; it's an absolute marvel. I got sight of a proof copy of this a couple of months ago, when it was described to me as a cross between China Mieville, Richard Morgan and Terry Pratchett, and much though I respect the person who described it that way, I think he's wrong. There's certainly a sort of Mieville vibe about it, but it also reminded me of Neal Stephenson in places, and Thomas Pynchon in others.
Briefly, it's set in a sort-of-alternative world where the Go-Away Bomb, the weapon of mass destruction to end all weapons of mass destruction, has been developed, a bomb which removes the information from matter and just makes it...go away. Of course, the Bomb is used, but there's unexpected fallout which leaves, quite literally, a world of nightmares. The only way people can survive is by the good offices of the Jorgmund Pipe, a world-spanning pipeline-cum-sprinkler system which sprays out a substance that nullifies the effects of the fallout and creates a narrow band where it's safe to live.
It's a big book that's bursting with energy and invention. It's got ninjas and mimes, an enormous land-going oil platform that reminded me of the mobile city in Inverted World, a love story, more ninjas, a bar powered by pigs, big trucks. It's also very moving, usually when you least expect it. A great debut. Go out and buy this book now; it will surprise the living daylights out of you and I'm not going to tell you how because that would spoil the surprise. Harkaway is special.
Next up is Rant by Chuck Palahniuk. This one surprised me, too. It has all the usual weird and sick Palahniuk invention - a chap who gets erections by being stung by poisonous spiders, a subculture of people who go out on the LA freeways to duel with their cars, a West Coast so crowded that people live in day-and-night shifts - and then all of a sudden you realise you're reading a fairly outrageous science fiction novel, one that's rigorously thought-out and full of potential, one of those books that you get about two-thirds of the way through and then have to go back to the beginning because you've just discovered something which changes the way you think about it. A bit like Fight Club but more sophisticated. Liked it. Not a comfortable read, but I liked it.
Next up is The Spies Of Warsaw by Alan Furst. Nobody reads Furst for surprises; he'll never pull the rug out from under you. What you see is what you get, and what you get is some of the best-written fiction I've ever read. His early books, Dark Star and Night Soldiers, cover large parts of the Second World War. The mighty Night Soldiers, which I can't recommend enough, follows a Bulgarian member of the Soviet intelligence services from his recruitment, through his time in Spain during the Civil War, through the Second World War, to the late forties. In subsequent books Furst's style has become increasingly impressionistic, focusing on the intelligence war going on around the outbreak of World War Two, the `Midnight Of The Century' as someone once called it. Here old friends return - Colonel Vyborg, of Polish military intelligence, who made his debut in Dark Star, the mysterious Doctor Lapp, Captain de Milja, the subject of The Polish Officer, gets a mention, and no Furst novel would be complete without a visit to the Brasserie Heinninger in Paris. I think I've said this before, but it's as though Furst is writing an enormous movie about the years leading up to the War in Europe, and each novel gives us another part of the picture. As with every Furst novel, The Spies Of Warsaw is full of tiny little well-researched details, particularly about Paris, a city Furst obviously adores. I think his grasp of some of the more formal forms of Polish address may be a bit shaky, but I didn't care. Much recommended.
And next up is Ascent, by Jed Mercurio, the story of a Russian fighter pilot from his youth in the aftermath of Stalingrad to his time as a fighter pilot in Korea to his training as a cosmonaut to his involvement in a highly-secret mission to the Moon. This worked really well; it's exhaustively-researched and beautifully written. I've never seen aerial combat as well done. This might sound strange, but Mercurio gives a sense of the size of the sky better than I've ever read. There's a flatness of affect about the prose which works really well considering the central character's character. Yeah, liked that a lot.
And finally, but by no means least, The Plot Against Pepys by father-and-son team James and Ben Long. At the height of his career in the service of Charles II - and under the patronage of the King's brother, James Duke of York - in 1679 Samuel Pepys was accused of being involved in the Popish Plot to assassinate the King and put his Catholic-leaning brother on the throne. The Popish Plot was actually a con-trick by a chap called Titus Oates, but it led to something not dissimilar to Stalin's Terror.
The Longs have produced a work of considerable scholarship which is paced like a thriller. Locked up in the Tower of London, Pepys sets about creating a network of agents to investigate the charges against him. Restoration England is wonderfully evoked - an early passage speaks of Pepys being conveyed from Parliament to the Tower and describes the sights he would have seen along the way, including the original St Paul's, destroyed in the Great Fire and still being demolished to make way for the Cathedral we have now, and throws in the detail that more people died in the demolition than died in the Fire. The Longs even tell us what the weather was like.
The book's about Pepys, of course, but its black heart is really his accuser, Colonel John Scott, an extraordinary conman and chancer who, through one of his schemes, was ultimately responsible for the Dutch being turfed out of New Amsterdam and the settlement being renamed New York. He also seems to have been involved, because of another moneymaking scheme, in the creation of New Jersey. If you were writing a work of fiction and created Scott, people would say you were going a bit too far.
This is an absolutely brilliant book; it brings Pepys's world alive in a way I haven't encountered before. And it's a cracking thriller, too, a real page-turner full of really great characters. An outstanding achievement, bursting with detail, and I can't recommend it highly enough.