Okay, having already singled out my top five books of the year, here’s the rest of the reading list. As usual, don’t be surprised at the lack of scathing reviews among the below. I pick books to read that I think I stand a chance of enjoying, and after thirty-three years experience of such, it’s rare that I actually dislike a book I’ve bought. This is nothing to do with croneyism, as I’ve been accused of in the past (bizarrely, because I’ve yet to recieve wondrous industry favours from people I’ve reviewed kindly, nor had doors closed in my face by those whose work I’ve enjoyed less). Your mileage may vary…
Dawn, Tim Lebbon – The first part of this dark fantasy duology, Dusk, was fantastic. Startling, original characters travelled a unique landscape, driven by a lean engine of a plot that ended in a truly shocking ending that left me reeling. Unfortunately, it left the first two thirds of Dawn reeling too. The writing is still superb, as are the characters and setting, but everything spends too much time reeling from the end of book one, and for me it’s only in the final third that things come alive again. I found the reading hard-going due to this, and by the time I reached the impressive conclusion, my interest had dipped too much for me to re-engage. On the other hand, this won the British Fantasy Award for best novel last year, so a lot of people disagree with me.
Dead Sea, Brian Keene – Keene goes back to zombies in a story unrelated to his previously created worlds. Here we have a bunch of traditional walking corpses hounding a handful of well drawn characters onto the ocean waves. A fast and likeable little book which, while unconnected to Romero’s world, nevertheless feels as though it could be. Do you absolutely need another zombie book in your life? Not at this point. Will this one work for you if you want to snack down on one anyway? Probably, because it’s a well done, if overfamiliar, tale.
Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Jeff Lindsay – I loved the television series Dexter from the very first episode, and really struggled not to go out and buy the book it was based on at that point (a rare occasion where I enjoyed an adaptation so much, I didn’t want to abandon it for the source material). Now I’ve read the novel as well, I’m surprised at how unique each is. The book is a far leaner, meaner beast, rotating more tightly around Dexter, and featuring a cast of characters less sympathetic than the television series. The route to the conclusion is different too, so while the stories are generally the same, the details vary hugely. The constant between them is Dexter himself, the wittiest of monsters, and entirely consistent across the novel and the series. I loved both.
Broken Angel, Brian Knight – Brian Knight was my first new discovery of the year, and he’s a good one. This story, of a mysterious girl who pitches up in a small town with no memory, is heartbreaking in its honesty, and expertly delivered. The characters are true, almost Stephen King good, and the weirdness that swamps them with fragile Angel’s arrival is disconcerting and tragic. Knight paints a story which has no villains beyond the insecurities and demons of those living in Clearwater, but that’s enough to destroy the serenity of the town, and drive the reader to an ending I really didn’t see coming. My only criticism is the rush with which that ending descends, as it’s perhaps a little abrupt, but I’m splitting hairs, because this is a great book.
Deeper, James A. Moore – Another beautiful book from Necessary Evil Press, and a pleasure to page through. The story entertains, and zips along at a fair old pace, but it’s not without flaws. For me, the plot relies an awful lot on the narrator making some extraordinarily foolish decisions along the way, the better to drive the drama forward perhaps, but at the same time not wholly credible. In fiction, characters can make lousy choices based on poor information, and that’s fine. In a first person narrative though, the reader has exactly the same information as the narrator, and can judge credibility even better. A fun, brain-off read, and it was nice to revisit Lovecraft’s Innsmouth, but weak in several places.
Duma Key, Stephen King – While I found the first twenty pages of this slow going, it snorted rocket fuel after that, and for the next three hundred and fifty I thought it was going to be the best book I’d read in ten years. I wanted to live in it, it’s that good, and I find it hard to put to you how it made me feel about life, creation, recovery, and friendship. It is heartfelt, mature, and engaging – a song for the page. Alas, then comes the conclusion, which simply distracts. It isn’t bad, but it feels like an ending stuck on through genre convention, rather than need. It takes the story away from what it is, into areas it doesn’t quite fit. A strong, compelling book that tails away before it ends, but which I’m going to recommend for the journey.
Dearly Devoted Dexter, Jeff Lindsay – Back to Dexter Morgan, exquisite beast that he is, and this second installment in his story. Funnier than the first book, playing particularly on how alien we are to a sociopath, this book charts fascinating territory as a new serial killer turns up on Dexter’s patch. The plot revolves tightly around Sergeant Doakes, who has a new obsession with Dexter, and takes some deeply unpleasant twists to counterpoint the humour. There are some very funny scenes, including the one in which Dexter becomes accidentally engaged, and some interesting threads for future mining, including his relationship with his fiance’s children. A fast, witty book, well worth a look.
The Invisible Man, H.G. Wells – One of many classic books that you’d probably assume I’ve read, where in fact I haven’t. I enjoyed it, though for such a short novel it took me way too long to get through. Some of the book’s impact has doubtless been lost thanks to the familiarity of the idea in the post Wells fictional landscape. It’s a beautifully constructed piece though, and I was surprised by the wit behind many of the scenarios the increasingly psychopathic Griffin finds himself in.
A Whisper of Southern Lights, Tim Lebbon – By the time you’re reading this review, you’re probably going to be stuck with ebay as the only source for getting a copy, as it’s another gorgeous Necessary Evil Press limited edition. That said, if you can find a copy of this gorgeous paperback novelette, illustrated beautifully throughout, grab it. It doesn’t matter that it’s the third such small book in the Assassins series, detailing the immortal struggle between the demon Temple, and the tortured immortal man Gabriel (nothing like the angel). We’ve previously seen them clash in the Wild West, and on pirate ships on the high seas, and there have been other off screen meetings teasingly hinted at. In this third volume, the reason for thier centuries long dance is broadened beyond Gabriel’s simple need to avenge his wife and child, but telling you how would ruin the ending. All you need to know is that the story, short though it is, packs more power, beauty, and brutality onto the page than most novels. It’s set in the Far East during World War II, depicted almost literally as hell on earth. It’s brilliant, and the thought that I might have a couple of years to wait for the next installment is maddening.
Dark Hollow, Brian Keene – A book of two halves, where there should probably be three. The characters are well shaped, and the premise of the goat thing in the wood, with all the potent sexual threat it carries, is developed through a promising set-up that informs and plays well off the narrator’s personal subplot (the loss of a child, and the affect this has on his marriage). And then, there is a dramatic conclusion. That’s my problem here – after a intriguing, unsettling premise like this, I was expecting a period of development and maturation, prior to an action-packed finale. Instead, the novel leapfrogs this, and I was left a little disappointed. A good read, that stops a little short of its potential.
God’s End: Blizzard of Souls, Michael McBride – Book two of McBride’s apocalyptic horror trilogy, picks up where The Fall left off. Humanity is all but wiped out, with the Four Horsemen and their Swarm of reptilian nightmares gathering to wipe out the handful of survivors. In the new novel, dissent brews among the living, many of whom choose to follow a man with near satanic delusions of grandeur, and the minority, our heroes, choose a simpler, vision-led path. The struggle as War and his army descend on all comers is blistering, and occasionally heart-rending. By the end of the book, those remaining can be counted on two hands, with a final novel to follow, and hope a dwindling light. It’s great stuff, and I can’t wait to see how it closes when the last book comes about. Fingers crossed that it delivers on the momentum of the first two.
The King in Yellow, Robert W. Chambers – Still determined to catch up with some classics this year, I found this (horrible looking) edition of The King In Yellow in Waterstones, and read through it while in Mallorca. A collection of short stories loosely linked by the idea of a play which brings supernatural and psychological disaster on those who read it, this was first published in 1895, but remains eminently readable. It’s wittier than I thought it would be, with a couple of genuine classics in among the tales (‘The Repairer of Reputations’ and ‘The Yellow Sign’ stand out for me). As for the rest, the stories are probably more notable for the ideas behind them than the tales themselves. At best, those ideas have a timelessness that puts this collection alongside Lovecraft’s work, though the execution is often less ambitious.
The Reapers, John Connolly – An interesting change of style to the Charlie Parker books, in which the assassin Louis and his partner Angel step to the fore. Louis, black, gay, and enigmatic, gets the most attention here. Previously a charming enigma, his past is explored without wholly demystifying him, and makes for gripping reading. Parker does appear throughout, this time as a third party player in Louis’s story, referred to most often simply as The Detective, and seeing this scarred, haunted man through the eyes of others refreshes him entirely. The surface plot itself, wherein the assassins find themselves the target as Parker races to help, isn’t the most involved of the series, but the novelty of the perspectives involved carry it through.
The Rising: Selected Scenes from the End of the World, Brian Keene – Thirty-two short stories, doing exactly what it says on the tin. Set during the undead armageddon unleashed in Keene’s The Rising and The City of the Dead duology, these stories function as snapshots of the world beyond that linear plot, stolen moments from humanity’s doom. The stories are chronological, starting on day one of the zombie uprising, and closing, literally, on the end of the world thirty-two days later. I enjoyed these tales, despite them being too short to develop individually into anything too fresh or developed. The true pleasure of the book is in the outlining of the calendar month, as the earth dies. In that, it becomes a fair companion to the two novels, and worth buying if you enjoyed those books, especially now that this can be found in trade paperback.
Daemon, Harry Shannon – My experience of this book changed halfway through, from moderate enjoyment, to boredom, which was a shame, because Harry Shannon writes very well, his crisp prose ideally suited to the fast pace he uses here. The problem, for me, is that this is a horror novel with no horror. There’s gore, don’t get me wrong, but no horror that the reader can be properly immersed in. The good guys are highly trained military types with vast budgets and a sophisticated weapons closet that seems effectively unlimited. The villain inhabits dead bodies, and for most of the novel stumbles around trying to bite its prey. It’s not a recipe for suspense, despite individual action scenes being well realised. Beyond that, by the time the halfway mark has been reached, you can take a reasonable stab at which characters have been developed sufficiently that they’re going to survive, and which ones are developed exactly well enough to be dispensable. As mentioned, Shannon can write, but this wasn’t for me.
Dexter In The Dark, Jeff Lindsay – A tonal departure for the Dexter series, which clumsily suggests that the protagonist may be the serial killer he is due mostly to his possession by a demon-thing. It just doesn’t work, especially after the care taken to establish Dexter’s sociopathic credentials in previous outings (and the aftermath notion that this is all part of his developing psychosis doesn’t work either – he’s too self-aware a narrator not to understand these issues when relating them). That said, the novel is still enjoyable, particularly as Dexter’s engagement progresses, and the supporting cast wander on and off stage. I liked it, just not as much as the previous books, or indeed, the television series.
Nation, Terry Pratchett – An entertaining enough story about society, how it forms and works, and the pressures on it as it develops. As ever, Pratchett has an incisive point of view, but the fact that this is the first book in years that he hasn’t set on his Discworld is somewhat distracting. I can’t think why not, as the novel gains nothing from the distinction, leaving me scratching my head about the intention. It’s still a clever, funny read (though he’s examined similar themes of culture, religion and society better elsewhere – you could argue that his whole Discworld series does just that, brilliantly), but you can safely bide your time for the paperback.
The Tales of Beedle the Bard, J. K. Rowling – There’s not really much you can say about this endearing little hardback collection of fairytales for wizards and witches. It’s brief, charming, witty, and engaging. It’s utterly non-essential, but a pleasure to gobble up anyway (and the money goes to a cause so worthy, you couldn’t possibly feel aggrieved at spending it). An enjoyable way to pass a couple of short bus trips, that makes me hope Rowling doesn’t leave it too long before delivering something more substantial to her no doubt desperate publishers.
If that wasn’t enough for you, you could always compare and contrast with last year’s list.