Okay, here’s a look at pretty much everything I read for pleasure this year. You won’t find many bad reviews here, because I’m pretty selective in what I buy. I don’t read books I don’t think I’m going to like, and I’m a reasonably well-practised judge of that by now. If you missed it, I plucked my top five from this list and posted them separately the other day. The below is long, and was written as I finished each book throughout the year. I challenge you to read it 😉 There may be a couple of things missing, but this is most of it.
Tricks of the Mind, Derren Brown– I’m a huge fan of Derren Brown’s television work, and this book from the devil-bearded mind twiddler (or devil minded beard twiddler, dependent on your point of view), is charming, extremely funny, and deeply insightful. Learn how to control your friends with the power of your mind! Well, not quite – this is just an informal walk through the areas Brown specialises in as an entertainer. His section on debunkery, pulling the rug on exploitative psychics and their ilk, is intelligent, clear, and funny without (I think) attacking those who get drawn into their webs.
The Infinite, Douglas Clegg– Clegg’s series of Harrow House books have been entertaining me on and off for a few years now, and this one is a solid read. Harrow isn’t quite the definitive haunted house in modern literature, but it draws widely from the tradition of such stories, and adds enough originality to avoid feeling stale. Clegg’s characters are also notably enjoyable here, pulling you right into his world.
The Philosopher at the End of the Universe, Mark Rowlands – Using well known sci-fi and fantasy films to illustrate the most common philosophical conundrums sounds bonkers, but it works rather well, and entertains as much as it informs. Is there really is an absolute Good or Evil beyond subjective interpretation? Is your mind is a floaty cloud around your head instead of the wet fleshy stuff inside? Do you have free will? What is reality, really? Give your brainbox some exercise.
A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin – The fourth book (fifth in paperback) of Martin’s epic A Song of Fire and Ice sequence, featuring the most vividly drawn characters (hundreds of them, all distinct, and painted in shades of grey), interacting in the most convincing world. Immersive and deeply satisfying, but make sure you read the others in the series first.
Lisey’s Story, Stephen King – There’s a perpetual backlash against King that I always find rather odd. It runs something like “I liked his early stuff – why doesn’t he go back to that sort of thing?” The answer is most probably that he already wrote them, and moved on. And thank goodness, because there’s little chance he could have offered something as emotionally redolent as this book back in the day. This story of a bestselling author’s bereaved wife having to find new strength to survive is unsettling in subtler ways, a story about grief and love that genuinely moves.
Every Dead Thing, John Connolly– With vast piles of books on my TBR pile, the last thing I really needed to do was become fascinated with a new series of novels, guaranteeing I would add to that pile rather than fire into it. Alas Charlie Parker, the traumatised first person narrator of the story, is an incredibly compelling narrator. He is also intriguingly unreliable, believing that he sees the shades of the murdered, including his family – the reader doesn’t know whether this is a symptom of his stress, or something otherworldly. The writing is beautiful, and though ostensibly a crime thriller, the influence of the supernatural layers a compelling mystery over the whole thing.
The Wicked, James Newman – Oh, this was an absolute blast, a distillation of everything that was enjoyable about eighties small town horror, with none of the bad. Ancient evil, city folk moving to the sticks to rebuild their lives after a tragedy, the two meeting head to head in struggle and tragedy… read the book cover to cover in a day, which is rare these days. Alas, you probably can’t share this one with me, as I grabbed the gorgeous Necessary Evil Press limited edition, which sold out quickly. If you do see a copy somewhere though, or if it goes to to a mass market edition, don’t hesitate to grab it.
Dark Hollow, John Connolly – So, having been gripped by Every Dead Thing, I had to know what happened to Parker next. As well as Parker himself, still in a very dark place, this novel brings back two characters who will recur throughout the series, the partially reformed burglar and fashion victim Angel, and his lethally enigmatic gay lover, the semi-retired hitman Louis. Connolly again demonstrates that he can write some of the most disturbing villains in crime fiction, and delivers a story tht merges the hunt for a modern day monster with events in the early life of Parker’s own grandfather (and secret histories will go on to be another signature of this series).
Stains, Paul Finch – I read this heartbreakingly good collection of short stories and novellas while I was stuck in Reading for a couple of weeks, rationing them out to one each evening. Finch writes the sort of stories that you want to hunker over, and I did just that. It is an accepted fact of publishing that collections do not sell as well as novels or authors, but if I could overturn that law for jut one book, it would be this, which deserves to be read and enjoyed by every single one of you.
The Killing Kind, John Connolly – I mentioned genuinely disturbing villains earlier, but in the third Parker novel we meet the demonic arachnophile Mr Pudd, whose weapon of choice has eight legs and fangs… truly memorable. The story here, which travels across the Maine landscape where Parker has rooted himself, covers cults, anti-abortionism, and the ghosts of the dead. The supernatural overtones deepen further, without becoming fully explicit, and the mystery of Charlie Parker broadens with them.
An Occupation of Angels, Lavie Tidhar– A punchy little novella from the UK’s Pendragon Press, in which Archangels materialised above the battlefields of world war two and ushered in a new Cold War by becoming the superweapons of the age. Now somebody is slaughtering them. Killarney, female agent of the Shadow Executive, travels the world in search of a culprit. The premise is interesting, and the depiction of archangels is novel, but the book is most interesting for Killarney herself, a very promising character indeed.
The Black Angel, John Connolly – Bugger, I was hooked through the nose on the Charlie Parker novels, but couldn’t find the next one, The White Road, anywhere. I panic, and do something out of character, picking up the fifth instead. The longest of the novels so far, this is the most overtly supernatural, as strange, possibly immortal creatures collide with Parker as they search for a fallen angel encased in stone. There are even suggestions that Parker himself may not be everything we have been led to believe. A brilliant, brilliant novel, that rewards the investment of the long term reader.
The White Road, John Connolly– And back to the fourth novel, just to plug the hole in the sequence. For various reasons, I thought I’d read the last of Mr Pudd in The Killing Kind, but that turns out not to be true. Pudd is in a very bad place indeed, but it turns out he has a long, long reach…
Retribution, Steven Savile– The final part of Savile’s Vampire Counts trilogy, in which Steve has fleshed the bones of the vampire wars that feature so strongly in the Warhammer mythology. I enjoy the best of the Warhammer stuff anyway, and seperately have always enjoyed Steve’s literate, emotive brand of dark fantasy. Was I originally convinced he could marry them together? No. Did he prove me wrong, fleshing out a rich world of tortured characters struggling to survive war upon war? Yes. Nice one.
The Everlasting, Tim Lebbon– Another beautiful, limited edition hardcover from Necessary Evil Press, but this one is already out in a mass market paperback, so I feel less guilty recommending it. Lebbon is a visionary writer, able to combine exquisite, literary prose with the sort of characterisation and credible world building that invites you to believe. He also has a unique vision – it simply isn’t possible to predict or anticipate his stories, which ooze with tragedy, beauty, and sacrifice.
The Unquiet, John Connolly – By necessity, my last Parker for a while, as it brings me up to date with this year’s release. The Unquiet takes a step back from the myth-building of The Black Angel, and tells a smaller story, the closest thing to a straightforward investigation that the series has presented. Child abuse and pornography are the core topic, and it makes uncomfortable reading (as it should). The supernatural overtones are not forgotten, and are represented by the terrifying Hollow Men lurking on the edges of Parker’s vision, controlled by a shadowy figure he has met before.
Hosts, F. Paul Wilson– While Charlie Parker is a new discovery, Repairman Jack is an old friend. A man with no official history, no social security number, nothing to tie him to society, Jack makes his money helping those who officialdom has failed. Whether he’s out-scamming scammers, or coming face to face with ancient evil, he’s one of those literary creations that you literally befriend. Hosts sees his long estranged sister pop unexpectedly into his life, with a cult hot on her heels. It’s been a couple of years since I last spent time with Jack, and I enjoyed finding out what was going down with him so much that when I finished the book, I immediately plunged into…
The Haunted Air, F. Paul Wilson – Following on closely enough from Hosts that Jack starts the novel still reeling from the previous one’s conclusion, The Haunted him throwing himself into a turf war between phoney psychics. At the same time, he is drawn into events surrounding what could be an actual haunted house, even though he doesn’t believe in such things. Another fabulous read, and in the background it’s becoming clearer that Jack has been noticed by unimaginable powers as both a threat and a target.
Gateways, F. Paul Wilson – I know, I know, variety is the spice of life, but sometimes comfort food has a place too. Jack’s father, who thinks his son is an applicance repairman, has moved into the Gateways retirement home in Florida, and soon finds himself targetted by unnatural forces. Rural Florida is far from Jack’s New York comfort zone, and watching him deal with that is a great deal of fun. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that Jack has inadvertently been recruited as a champion in a mysterious cosmic war between evil and… well… indifference. Another sharp, smart thriller from Wilson.
Until She Sleeps, Tim Lebbon– A charity bookshop in Cardiff is hardly the first place I would normally look for a signed, limited edition hardback from one of my favourite contemporary authors, so I was surprised to find this gorgeous book in Oxfam while waiting for a train in May. A short novel from Lebbon, in which ancient nightmares leach into a small Welsh village while a long dead witch begins to wake. Full of haunting images, most of them inspiringly original, the only thing that let the book down for me was the too-easy conclusion. A cut above most of the competition, but Lebbon’s already surpassed his work in this book several times.
Ghoul, Brian Keene– I wanted to like this more than I did, but although it contains some of Brian’s best writing, it falls short of being his best book. In the end, the story of the characters, children growing up in the eighties, runs alongside the horror of the ghoul itself, rather than meshing organically with it, so there are two seperate books here. The kids are extremely well written, and the trials and torments rained down on them by parents and guardians are compelling. The ghoul in the graveyard feels bizarrely like a bloke in a rubber suit to me, with very little motivation or drive. It’s simply there, and it’s mean – a troll underneath the bridge. I really enjoyed the first book, and my attention strayed whenever the second reared up.
The Children of Hurin, J.R.R. Tolkien –My expectations of this book, a new telling of one of the central stories from Tolkien’s Middle Earth, were high (The Lord of the Rings being the novel that has perhaps had the biggest influence on me – ever). It’s not a quick or easy read, but it’s an immensely satisfying one. And dear God, it’s bleak, a tragedy that would sit well alongside the likes of Hamlet or Oedipus. Set long before the events surrounding a certain ring (in that time’s distant history), it follows the family of doomed Hurin, who’s defiance of the dark lord Morgoth brings a curse on his progeny that they spend thier lives trying to escape. A dark tormented tale, where pride brings destruction, and nobody escapes unscathed.
Monster Island, David Wellington – A blistering pace, a zombie apocalypse, and some unusual ideas underpinning the plot (the war-torn places on earth, where civil warfare and atrocity are a daily part of existence, are the only places not overrun by the dead, as they had the skills to repel them – a neat idea). This book whizzed by, in a really good way. A group of female Somali child soldiers are led on a mission into zombie-populated New York in search of a stash of HIV drugs to treat thier warlord leader. As well as the mindless dead, there are worse surprises waiting for them… The book is the first of three, and I’m looking forward to the next one.
Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill –This novel blew me away – a brilliant, thrilling, creepy as hell read. The characters, while not always likeable, are utterly true, and the menace is unrelenting. An aging rock legend buys a ghost over the internet, but discovers that the sale is less innocent than it seems, and the spirit has a horrific, and very personal, agenda. I’ve somehow failed to pick up any of Hill’s fiction until now, even when I discovered that his father is one of my favourite living auhors, but this brilliant debut novel has left me antsy to track down his short fiction.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J. K. Rowling – Okay, it’s impossible to talk about this book without giving stuff away. I really enjoyed it, and was all the more gratified for it being the end of a long journey. The resolution was satisfying, made sense, and confirms the whole seven book sequence as a fabulous example of the Heroic Quest. And yes, I was sad when it ended. I now live in a world where there are no more tales of Harry Potter to be told, and that’s a little bit of magic gone…
Monster Nation, David Wellington – After Monster Island, I seem to have developed a taste for Wellington’s brand of zombie apocalypse. This prequel, shooting back in time to show how the zombies rose and America fell before them, has all the energy of the first, though it’s a little less focused. It’s a grand exercise in world-building and expansion though, and as the plot threads unravels and time catches up with the previous novel, the threads that bind them become all the more clear.
Short Trips: The Centenarian, Ian Farrington, ed. – A themed anthology of Doctor Who short stories, from Big Finish (licenced by the BBC for these books, obviously). Some great stories, some good, some passable, but an intriguing collection thanks to the premise. There is nothing special about Edward Grainger, but for the fact that, throughout his life, at critical moments, he keeps bumping into a selection of gentlemen called the Doctor. The book starts on the day of Edward’s birth, and ends on the day of his death, aged one hundred years. The intriguing opening story, actually a clever double bluff that doesn’t become clear until the final tale, frames a smart selection of fiction.
Berserk, Tim Lebbon – Another breathless, textured nightmare from Tim Lebbon. For the most part, this is a chase book, and suffers slightly in the lack of fixed locations, which Lebbon ordinarily builds and characterises to tremendous effect. Other than that, it’s a fast, gripping plot, as the pursued descends into a personal hell that began ten years ago when his son allegedly died during military exercises, and spirals out of control when the lie of this is is uncovered (along with chained bodies beneath a moor, some of which are more talkative than others). At the heart of the book is a reworking of a particular horror trope which is refreshing and effective. I have the beautiful limited edition hardback from Necessary Evil Press, which is probably long sold out, but you can easily track down the mass market paperback.
Wintersmith, Terry Pratchett– Pratchett’s fourth entry in his young adult Discworld books, but as usual, this is as readable and sophisticated as any of the ‘adult’ books. The only difference seems to be the length, and the slight reduction in complexity from the reduced word count. Charming, intelligent, and amusing. The winter (yes, all of it) falls in love (sort of) with Tiffany Aching, aged 13. Luckily, Tiffany is a witch in training, with hundreds of fierce, if tiny, warriors to back her up. It’s worth reading the first two Tiffany Aching books before diving in here (Wee Free Men and A Hat Full Of Sky), but that shouldn’t be too painful a chore.
Monster Planet, David Wellington – And so concludes Wellington’s apocalyptic zombie trilogy, and it goes out in grand style. Plot threads dropped innocuously into books one and two tied up ten years later in the the timeline, and there are several reintroductions of characters and ideas gone before. Where Monster Island put you in the middle of the end of the world, and Monster Nation flashed you back to its beginning, her it’s twelve years on, in an almost unrecognisable world where the dead have plans and the living are ever more scarce. Buy and read the other two first, and then marvel at how this conclusion binds everything together with wild creativeness.
God’s End: The Fall, Michael McBride – Apocalypses are among my favourite themes in horror fiction, as you can see from this year’s reading. Here we have Michael McBride’s very christian end of days. It’s the first book of two I think, with Blizzard of Souls to follow next year, and it’s bloody brilliant stuff. Mixing real world politics into the mix of religious imagery, McBride spends half of the book putting the pieces into place for the destruction of the world (including the inventive creation of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse), and the second half making good on the promise in spectacular, visually inventive style. In the midst of this, disparate groups superbly realised survivors fight and flee thier way to the desert, searching for a young boy who may be the saviour of the species. I hope the second book concludes the tale as well as this one opens it.
Dead Men’s Boots, Mike Carey – Felix Castor is a down and out exorcist living in London, with a supporting cast of demons, werewolves, zombies, and sometimes even clients. I read the first two books in the series last year, and loved them. Fix Castor is a self-interested bastard, but a basically decent one, and a great narrator. In Castor’s world, ghosts and demons are now a fact of life, though nobody knows why except the demons, and they aren’t telling. In Dead Men’s Shoes there are the first signs of the arc plot the novels are developing in the backdrop, and it looks very promising indeed.
Making Money, Terry Pratchett – Pratchett writes two types of novel. Some are eye-wateringly brilliant, funny, insightful, and humanist. Others are merely very good books indeed. Not a bad track record. Making Money is in the latter camp. Moist von Lipwig, an only partially reformed con artist last seen reinventing the post office in Going Postal, is hoodwinked into pulling the same trick on the ailing Discworld banking system. The plot is the problem here, as it’s a little too lightweight to be really interesting, despite some sharp writing and memorable scenes. What saves the novel is Moist himself, an amiable, put upon trickster who lives on his wits and the power of words. Watching him convince an incredulous city that paper notes can have the same value as lumps of shiny stuff is the real fun of the novel.
Placeholders, John R. Little – A short, sharp novelette, the third in Necessary Evil Press’s extremely affordable series of same, and plenty powerful. It starts of a little like a macabre version of Quantum Leap, where a person who does not yet know who he is jumps from scenario to scenario. The difference is that each scenario is the final moments of somebody’s life, and he suffers the death-agonies on their behalf. For such a short story, it unfolds without a hurry, and conveys vast emotive power, though a series of neat narrative twists. The denouement is a genuine shock, and the story has left me with a genuine sense of delight at discovering an author I knew little about to be hugely talented.
The Bleeding Season, Greg F. Gifune – Another author new to me, and another grand discovery. It’s been a long time since I’ve read such a bleak, moving, unrelentingly grim piece of fiction. When one of four lifelong friends wasting thier lives in the town where they grew up hangs himself, his farewell note opens some dangerous doors. Could Bernard really be behind the bodies of women being discovered across town? Beautifully written, and achingly moving, though I found its grim hopelessness hardgoing sometimes. Recommended despite this, as possibly one of the best new novels I read in 2007.
All the Rage, F. Paul Wilson – Somehow, during my ongoing Repairman Jack odyssey (see earlier reading), I missed the fourth episode in the saga, All the Rage. Time to catch up, and it’s another blistering ride, as Jack deals with a new designer drug called Berzerk which is somehow connected to a familiar creature hooked up at Ozymandius Prather’s travelling oddity emporium. They call it the sharkman, but it looks an awful lot like the thing that left Jack scarred across the chest in his first novel The Tomb. Not the best in the series, but you can’t really go wrong with Jack.
Infernal, F. Paul Wilson – The ninth in the series, and the most recent I’ve read, and finally, a disappointment (hurrah – Wilson isn’t infallible!). This remains an easy read, but lacks a certain spark that made the other Repairman Jack novels so vibrant. For the most part, the lack of an antagonist – a villain, basically – pulls something away from the book. Jack’s problems are largely force of nature and supernature stuff, and his solutions are handed to him on a plate rather than being worked for. Additionally, there’s a remarkable lack of repair work happening – Jack’s an urban mercenary, but you wouldn’t know it from this book. There are some hints about the series arc of the novels, and there’s nothing bad about the book, but it won’t jump to the front of my mind when future me thinks back on this year’s reading.
Mister B Gone, Clive Barker – After so long a wait for new horror from Barker, this lightweight effort is a neat idea, that suffers for me in the execution. A demon is trapped in the pages, and talks relates its life in an effort to convince you the reader to burn the book and kill him. There’s a lazy lack of research which means the period setting fails to convince, and the novelty of the book talking to you wears off fast. I struggled to finish it.
There you go. Your mileage may vary.