Richard Wright

author of strange, dark fictions

Journal

Reading List 2009

Book PileThis year, I read forty-five books, some of them with pictures, and kept a track of my thoughts on each visa Goodreads (hit me up over there, if you’re a member.  As per the last couple of years, here are my reviews of, well, everything.  They’re not necessarily published in 2009, that’s just when I happened to read them.  My usual proviso goes out – I’m not a professional reviewer.  I’m telling you about stuff that I read because I thought I might enjoy it.  That’s why you’ll rarely find a book here that I’ve trashed, because I’ve been reading for, oh, years now.  I’m quite good at finding things I like.

Reading the below may be a gruelling experience, in one go.  Best dipped in and out of, or scanned through to see if anything catches your eye.  Missing from the below are my bestest five of 2009, because I already told you about them, here.  Enjoy.

The Grin of the Dark, Ramsey Campbell – As ever, Campbell’s fiction is not about in-your-face scares, but growing disquiet, the slow build rather than the instant pay off. It starts gently, creeping along, making strange suggestions to you, carefully piling oddity onto oddity until you finish.This book  left me feeling off-kilter, although the downside is that the nebulous shapes Campbell creates at the edge of your vision never quite take form. The first person account that is the story doesn’t benefit from this, because as things progress, reality warps for him, making him an unreliable narrator. How much of what transpires is supernatural phenomenon and how much is Simon Lester’s psychological breakdown is up in the air. While I have no problem with a novel raising questions, I like the occasional answer, or at least pointer, to go with them. A challenging read, impressively executed, but I was left wanting by the end.

The Affinity Bridge, George Mann – Set in a brilliantly realised steampunk London, where zombies lurch through the fog and clockwork men serve masters wealthy enough to afford them, this rip-roaring adventure follows gentleman investigator for the Crown Sir Maurice Newbury, and his new assistant Veronica Hobbes. The world-building is lovely, as are the lead characters. This can best be thought of as a mixture between James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, in a London filled with strange technologies and curious beasties. I had enormous fun with it, and the slip-cased edition I received for Christmas (thank you, lady) is a beautiful thing to behold on the shelf. We’re promised further Newbury & Hobbes adventures from Mann and Snowbooks, and I can’t wait to get hold of them.

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman One of those top five books I mentioned earlier.

Dragon’s Claws, Simon Furman, Geoff Senior – A pure nostalgia trip – twenty years ago, this is the monthly comic series I was reading, for all of its ten issue run. Tonally, it’s a bit of a science fiction western, set in the very far future, on a dying world, where only Dragon and his team of former Game players (a brutal sport briefly used to pacify the citizens before the government lost control and shut it down) stand between outlaws and the frightened populace. Furman’s scripts are morally ambiguous, more what you’d expect from 2000AD than a Marvel comic, and are starkly realised by artist Geoff Senior in ballistic form. I loved it then, and blitzed through this collected ten issues in a night.

Watchmen, Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons – Another of those top five.

Just After Sunset, Stephen King – Not my favourite King collection, as many of the short stories, while confidently told, lack sparkle. However, the longer, novella length works included here are King at his absolute best (I’ve always enjoyed him most when he has room to stretch). There are two that impressed me. The first, ‘Gingerbread Girl’, finds him in horror/thriller territory, right next door to the likes of Misery, and is just as nail-biting. ‘N’, on the other hand, is a sophisticated supernatural tale, weaving the detail of obsessive compulsive disorder into a grand yarn about the thin places in the world, and what lies on the other side. For just these two stories, the book is worth parting with your cash for. You’ll enjoy dipping into the rest too, once it’s bought, but those two are the prize.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill Ouch. This is disappointing. After the first two League books, both fantastic pulp adventures, Black Dossier is almost unreadable. Where the first two have a layered plot in a more or less traditional format, the actual story here is incredibly thin (in the 1950s, two surviving League members steal a dossier about their famous group’s history, and get chased about for a bit). The limited action is interspersed with articles, accounts and other memorabilia detailing the history of the League. Initially diverting, these quickly become extremely tedious, and smack of self-indulgence. It’s all very clever, and a lot of work has been put into the background documents, but ultimately, it’s just not a lot of fun.

Temple: Incarnations, Steven Savile Originally published as four parts in Apex Magazine, I spent the first two sections of this novella not knowing if I was going to like it. There was a lack of drive to the story of Temple, an amnesiac waking up in a post-apocalyptic ruin of a world. Savile’s work is always poetic, but in a narrative curiously lacking thrust, it feels as though it verges on purple. Then I got to the third part, which started motoring along nicely, and the fourth part, as Temple finds himself and his purpose, is both sublime and horrifying. A slow start then, but worth it in the end.

The Zombie Survival Guide, Max BrooksA practical guide to surviving encounters with the living dead, from minor Class 1 outbreaks, right up to Class 4, a devastated world populated mostly by zombies. There shouldn’t really be enough to this gimmicky idea to sustain more than a few quirky pages worth of material, making it all the more surprising that the book entertains throughout. Played completely straight, researched worryingly well, this is a bizarre and unique little book. It creates a compelling fictional world, without the use character or plot, which is impressive and engrossing (effectively, the book makes you the character). If you pick this up at all, you’ll be assuming it’s a novelty item. By the time you’re halfway through and assessing how quickly you could demolish your own staircase in an emergency, you’ll be having too much fun to analyse why.

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins – Another of the top five.

Maneater, Thomas Emson – The first werewolf tale I’ve read in years, from an author new to me, and I’m impressed. I’m not sure it can properly be labelled as horror, but it’s a pacy, very well judged supernatural thriller, full of well written characters, and a well plotted central mystery. If I’ve a complaint at all, it would be that the cast of secondary characters is probably too full, to the point that when the identity of a serial killer is revealed to be somebody who featured earlier in the book, I had to flick back to remind myself who it was. The subplots themselves may also be one too many, the serial killing falling off the edge of the central conflicts, but the book moves so quickly, I can’t honestly say that bothered me too much. Criticism in restrospect, because I had a good time with this book, finishing it in a couple of days. Snowbooks again proves that, when it comes to genre fiction, they’ve got my tastes down to a tee.

In The Midnight Museum, Gary A. Braunbeck – My edition is a beautiful signed and numbered hardback published in 2005, and long sold out. However, a limited run of the same book has now (at the time of writing) been published in paperback by Australia’s Tasmaniac Publications, and I urge you to hop over there today and grab a copy. Braunbeck is one of those writers who finds the best in my genre, the humanity and struggle that should underline all good horror but too often does not, and makes it sing. In The Midnight Museum is a melancholy, haunting work which has much to say on aging, and self-worth, and how we each see our place in the world. That it manages all of this in a short novella that races through a surreal, disturbing tale with a vast, satisfying climax, demonstrates how good this writer really is.

Rain, Conrad Williams – An exceptionally disturbing, bewildering piece of weird fiction. It’s a slim novella, helped to fill out 100 pages by an over large font, but when every word is used as well as it is here, you can hardly complain. The story perfectly evokes the grief of a dying marriage, marrying it to sublime, erotic displays of happier times. The unfathomable, surreal ending was a genuine shock, and one that had me thinking on it for hours. This is a beautiful, painful read, strange, but perfectly formed. It’s genuinely unsettling, but quite wonderful for that.

The Peabody-Ozymandias Travelling Circus & Oddity Emporium, F. Paul Wilson – A slim novella, beautifully produced by Necessary Evil Press, following the assembly of freaks put together by Ozymandias Prather as they tour the US, secretly hunting down the scattered parts of a device that once constructed, will change the world. Readers of Wilson’s Repairman Jack series will already have met some of these characters in the novel All the Rage, and here they have their own tale. It’s an entertaining, and probably essential reading for followers of Wilson’s Secret History of the World (which includes the Jack books). My lovely edition sold out from the publisher before the official release date, but in order to make it more widely (and cheaply) available, Wilson has self-published a paperback edition. Details are on his website.

Dexter by Design, Jeff Lindsay – The fourth in the series, and much, much better than the ill-conceived Dexter in the Dark, which I read last year. Gone are the overt attempts to supernaturally mythologise serial killers, and the Dark Passenger slips closer to the metaphor it once was for the underside of Dex’s outward charm. It’s a funny read, with little turns of phrase making me laugh out loud a few times, although it struggles for an ending, seeming to find one by default rather than ingenuity. While this is a mixed bag of a review, and I’m forced to admit that the TV series based on the books may actually have surpassed the source, it’s never less than a thoroughly entertaining read, and that’s something to admire in itself.

We Fade to Grey, ed. Gary McMahon – A book of five novelettes, which start off as solid entertainment, and escalate to something quite special. Opening is The Pumping Station by Paul Finch, which is a cracking yarn, that doesn’t quite match the clarity of characterisation to an equally gripping plot, but which holds your attention anyway. Bliss, by Stuart Young, is a thrilling bit of sci-fi horror for the first three quarters, but takes too big a leap to a head trip finale, and left me a little dissatisfied. Heads, by Gary McMahon, is excellent, a really good, regret-laden tale mixing old legend with modern relationship dysfunction to disorientating effect. Even better is Mark West’s The Mill, which is a little study in grief that gets under your skin in subtle ways, and makes the most of West’s trademark humanism to make you empathise painfully with the lead character. Rounding it off, and worth buying the whole book for, is Simon Bestwick’s The Narrows, a claustrophobic, unrelenting nightmare, bleak but compelling, that raises questions, and leaves you to answer them on your own. Brilliant stuff, by any objective measure.

Skarlet, Thomas Emson – More solid entertainment from Emson. For the first two thirds, it’s an intriguing horror. The final third, building to the dramatic face off, is fairly predictable, but it’s sufficiently well delivered that I could enjoy it anyway. I like my vampires the way Emson plays them here, as savage beasts rather than impotent intellectuals, and the nightclub set up is a neat way into the well played origins of his bloodsuckers. Not quite on a par with Maneater for me,  but fun. It’s the first part of a trilogy, and I’ll be back for Krimson, hoping the story develops instead of simply repeating.

Blaze, Stephen King – Not one of King’s most remarkable books, but a solid, emotionally satisfying one. It owes a great deal to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, particularly the central relationship between the brain damaged Blaze and his (dead) friend George, the smarts of the operation. King doesn’t hide this influence, and plays on it to foreshadow the inevitable tragedy of the conclusion. There are some lovely moments, particularly in the sequences showing Blaze’s former life, and the conclusion is a breathless, toe-curling race for life.

Thicker Than Water, Mike Carey – Fourth in the series following the noir exploits of Felix ‘Fix’ Castor, tin-whistling freelance exorcist. There’s a really louche charm to these books that’s entirely generated by Fix being a great narrator. He’s the dry, dogged door to an increasingly well realised world where werewolves, ghosts, and demons are commonplace. This time, Fix’s family play a larger role than before, and we get to see some of what it was like growing up in Liverpool, adding previously unseen layers to his character. The plot itself is a dark one, about the psychic miasma surrounding four London tower blocks, and the mutilations it seems to be causing. Overall, another brilliant blend of the supernatural fantastical, and real world grit.

A Little Brown Book of Bizarre Stories, Thomas F. Monteleone– A short book of short stories, each of which can effectively be described as ‘neat’. It didn’t blow me away, or change the way I thought about short fiction, which I (probably foolishly) expected given Monteleone’s reputation. On the other hand, I enjoyed each and every story, looked forward to the next one, and wasn’t disappointed. What more, really, could I have asked for? It’s also a beautifully presented little book, signed, numbered, and importantly, affordable. As I said, neat.

God’s End: Trail of Blood, Michael McBride The final part of McBride’s apocalyptic God’s End trilogy. I wish I’d liked this more, after loving the first book and enjoying the second, but I struggled hard to get to the end. There didn’t feel like there was enough here to justify a book, and much of the pace is plodding. The survivors of the Blizzard of Souls must trek across a wasted landscape to challenge the remaining horsemen of the apocalypse for possession of the world. At times it feels like everybody is having prophetic dreams of the challenges they will soon face. They have a dream about something, worry about it for a few chapters, then it happens, pretty much as described. It’s a ponderous way to carry a fairly straightforward story, and made me want to scream at the book to get on with it! The final couple of chapters picked up considerably, but I’m not sure getting there should make me feel as exhausted as the characters I’m reading about.

Nineteen Seventy-Four, David Peace – There is no comfort at all to be had in this book. It’s bleak to the point of despair, from the first page to the last, swallows you into itself whole, and tries to drown you in misery and corruption. Even the expected hero of the piece, journalist Eddie Dunford, is despicable and deserves at least some of what he ultimately endures as his exploitative investigation into a child serial killer spirals out of his control, and collides with a conspiracy of violent, powerful men. The pace is manic, the prose structure innovative and poetic, and the result is bewildering and sometimes close to hallucinogenic. Unrelenting, but memorable.

Nineteen Seventy-Seven, David Peace Peace’s Red Riding quarter jumps forward three years, this time following the screwed up lives of half-decent police officer Bob Fraser, and burned out journalist Jack Whitehead. Both are dangerously obsessed with Chapeltown prostitutes, and are sucked into an investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper’s slaughter of these women. Both men are dangerously on the edge, and the plot follows the hollow, desperate plummet of their lives as events overwhelm them, and the extent of the corruption of West Yorkshire police force becomes clearer. Like 1974, this is brutal, compelling stuff, but not for the faint of heart, nor those enamoured with happy endings.

Nineteen Eighty, David Peace Better than Nineteen Seventy-Four and Nineteen Seventy-Seven, thanks to a clearer narrative. For the first time, there’s also a truly likeable narrator in Peter Hunter, a leading man whose qualities outweigh his flaws (setting him apart from the likes of Eddie and Jack in previous books). And finally, an honest copper, though I’m not sure what it says about the Yorkshire police force that they had to fly one in from Manchester. Of course, the fact that I warmed to Hunter made the author’s now familiar breakdown of the character’s world even more wrenching. His struggle to unearth the corruption in the Yorkshire force, and the failings in their Yorkshire Ripper investigation, does not go unnoticed.  The repercussions, while predictable by this point in the quartet, are shattering.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1910, Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill This is more like it. After the tedious self-indulgence of The Black Dossier, we’re back to linear storytelling. The first of the three annual chapters that will make up the Century volume, this follows the new incarnation of the League, still led by Murray and Quartermain, as they investigate new member Thomas Carnacki’s visions of a forthcoming disaster of apocalyptic proportions. There are several strands to the tale, including the introduction of Captain Nemo’s daughter Janni and her radicalisation, the return to London of one Macheath, the vengeful Pirate Jenny, and the investigation itself.  The interweaving of fact, fiction, and metafiction works far better in a story than the jumble of oddities that was Dossier. There are flaws – the investigation fizzles out, though will clearly re-emerge in one of the forthcoming chapters, leaving the League baffled and inactive for much of the story, but the subplots leap to the fore to provide an explosive climax. A solid first chapter, the League stories back on form, and I look forward to next year, and Century 1968.

Iris Wildthyme and the Celestial Omnibus, Stuart Douglas Iris Wildthyme, a transdimensional time traveller who journeys universes and histories, drinking gin and having adventures, in a red double decker bus that’s… erm… slightly smaller on the inside than it probably should be. She has had companions on her travels, some of whom still tolerate a visit from the mad old bat, and her current partner in crime is a sentient stuffed panda, called Panda. She might sound like a twisted version of another fictional time traveller, and indeed, was first introduced to the world as a character in some of his adventures. She’s also spun off into her own audio series, and here she has a stunningly designed hardback short story collection to call her own. Most of the stories are as strange and silly as the premise sounds, which is not a bad thing, as they bounce by very entertainingly, though many strike a similar one-note chord. The best point at where her future may lie, if she is to establish a hint of the longevity of her illustrious predecessor, at least in my opinion. Sovereign, The Scarlet Shadow, and Only Living Girls are bursting with the energy and anarchy an Iris story should have, while at the same time telling stories that transcend the title character without betraying her, full of ideas and heart. There’s a universe of adventure waiting for Iris, and it’s in the exploration of stories like these, that talk about something truthful, that I most enjoy her company.

The Lovers, John Connolly – Connolly’s Charlie Parker sequence, of which this is the eighth novel, shows no sign of dipping in quality, and this might be one of the best of the lot. Stripped of his PI license, Parker investigates the only thing he legally can, delving into the mysteries of his past, and the death of his father. As with the best of the books, the plot is eased away in layers, becoming more complex as Parker is driven to push, and delve, and pry, until the starkest truths about himself and the world around him remain. There is a gothic desolation to the tale.  The supernatural is now an undeniable fact of Charlie’s world, no longer a possible product of having an unreliable narrator, and the story gains further depth for the clarification. What can I say – I love these books, and the world and people I get to visit through them. If you want to try them, don’t start here. Go to the beginning, to the brilliant  Every Dead Thing, and see how you get on.

Nineteen Eighty-Three, David Peace – The last of the Red Riding Quartet, and probably the least satisfying. Despite being set in eighty-three, much of the plot transpires in the sixties and seventies, jumping back and forward like a hyperactive child, weaving through the plots of the previous books and recontextualising them. It’s a gruelling, exhausting read, and while it just about makes a new plot out of tying up previous loose ends, the ride is by now familiar and strained. The characters are ruined and broken by the end, as you’d expect from reading the previous books, but it’s all less satisfying and I found aspects, such as the breaking of solicitor John Piggott, manufactured and flawed. As that character takes his final actions, I read on with disbelief, not because of what he was doing, but because I just didn’t find his choices credible from the way he had presented himself throughout the book. As the final part of the quartet, this is labored and unsatisfying, challenging for the wrong reasons. I finished it out of necessity, having travelled so far through the quartet that I wasn’t prepared to quit, rather than because it gripped me, as the previous books did.

Tide of Souls, Simon Bestwick – I’ve been reading Simon’s short fiction for over a decade, have watched him progress fantastically as an author, and was very impressed with his novella ‘The Narrows’ in the We Fade to Grey antho earlier in the year. Tide of Souls is the first novel-length piece of work of his I’ve tried, written for a range of unconnected zombie books published by Abaddon Books. I enjoyed it very much, though I’m struggling to find much original in zombie fiction these days, no matter how good they might be in their own right. It’s a shame, because Bestwick uses a powerful, blunt, and organic written technique to make the most of the bleak horror of the tale, and his characters are beautifully shaped. It was the characters as individuals that kept me reading, more than the quirks of this particular zombie apocalypse, and I closed the book a happy reader. Even if you think you’ve had your fill of the walking dead for a while, give this the benefit of the doubt if you see it on the shelf.

Let the Right One in, John Ajvide Lindqvist – Also in the top five of the year.

The Osiris Ritual, George Mann One of the first books I read this year was The Affinity Bridge, the first of the steampunk adventures of Newbury & Hobbes, and here comes the second. There’s derring-do, Egyptian mummies, hidden plots, unrequited love, a steampunk car chase, and more of the world-building I so enjoyed last time round. There’s a definite sense of things moving forward in this series, as Sir Maurice Newbury falls deeper into his opium addiction, Miss Veronica Hobbes struggles to keep her secrets from him, and in the background, Newbury gets to see the more nefarious side of his work for the Crown. This series is proving to be great fun, and highly engaging. I splashed out for the limited edition hardback again, and it’s just as lovely as Affinity Bridge was. You needn’t worry if you haven’t the £30 spare, as the paperback’s  already published depending when you read this.

One, Conrad Williams – Brutal, poetic, and harrowing – this is very grown up horror indeed. If I hadn’t already read The Road, which is a similar post-apocalyptic journey across another shattered landscape, with another desperate father, I would have enjoyed it more. There’s no mimicry intended, and the final third of the book steers a sharp left into freakier territory than The Road allows itself, but it’s a little unfortunate. That said, this is highly accomplished stuff, more than enough to make me seek out more novels from Williams, and establishes the author as a frontrunner of UK dark fiction.

The Terror, Dan SimmonsLast, I think, of this year’s top five.

Ghost Walk, Brian KeeneA solid enough horror story, but not a fulfilling one. The idea is fine, and some of the characters genuinely interesting. If there’s a problem, it’s the A-B-C nature of the plot. There’s a straight line that goes: a threat appears, heroes gather, a confrontation happens. No diversions, no real sidelines into character development, just a race from start to finish, by the most direct route possible. For me, it’s a waste of an interesting story, as there’s obviously more to tell. It kept me going through a bout of Delhi belly, but I’ll be struggling to remember the details in a couple of months.

The Faculty of Terror, John Llewllyn Probert– Six tales within a framework story that, sort of, links them together, this book makes much of referring back to the old Amicus portmanteau movies (Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors was always my favourite). While there is little within the pages of Faculty to create any genuine terror, it’s an imaginative collection of stories, that capture the essence and Britishness of those films brilliantly, and is just as much fun. A splendid book to bounce through.

Shakespeare: The World As Stage, Bill Bryson – Not so much a biography of Shakespeare’s life, and more an illumination of the fact that we know next to nothing about Shakespeare’s life. Bryson dissects previous theories about the man – skewering most of them, in fact – to show why they don’t work. It’s a fascinating look at the history of Shakespeare scholarship, and an illuminating, colourful glimpse at the world Shakespeare certainly passed through, that’s fun, honest, and valuable for the pretension-skewering approach Bryson takes.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George OrwellAnother classic caught up on, and one I’ve meant to do for years. It’s a brilliant book, well deserving of its longevity and cultural assimilation. That said, there’s not a lot more to say about it that hasn’t been said – it is, as you’ll have heard, frighteningly relevant in its description of a surveillance society taken to the furthest degree, and its assessment of the politics of fear, which we’ve all been subjected to over the last ten years by our various governments. It’s also, these worthy themes aside, a damn good story, well told. A book that will intrigue and thrill you, even if you think you know everything there is to know about it.

Fallen, Tim Lebbon – The third Noreela book, I think, set a considerable time before the Dusk/Dawn duology. I had a mixed experience with that story, but not this one – it’s a fantastic, thrilling tale. Lebbon has firmly established his world of Noreela now, and seems a lot more comfortable. It feels like a place, where before it felt like an impressive invention, and the warring explorers Nomi and Ramus are a gripping pair as they race for the greatest, most terrifying discovery in their world’s history. Their rivalry plays the quest theme out in more sophisticated ways than the usual quest yarn, and the conclusion is fitting, impressive, and horrifying. Brilliant stuff.

Drood, Dan Simmons – Having read ‘The Terror’ a month or so previously, I came to ‘Drood’ with expectations, among them the expectation that I could only be let down. Not so – this expanding alternate history world (the Franklin Expedition of the previous novel is referenced cleverly, and there’s no reason from what’s given here that it’s not the same one from the previous book), has a harsh, disturbing tone, and both books blend fact and fiction wonderfully. ‘Drood’ is a long book, more a place to go and live for a couple of weeks than a story to gobble, but once started it’s impossible not to get caught up in the fraught, opium-riddled first person narrative of Wilkie Collins, and the turbulent, twisted relationship he has with the Inimitable, Charles Dickens. Both characters are beautifully written, and the book is entertaining, driven, has some fine things to say about the difference between talent and creativity along the way. Most of all, it’s a glorious mystery, one that you may well have solved before the denouement, but no less enjoyable for that.

Graveyard People: The Collected Cedar Hill Stories, Gary A. BraunbeckThis book has been my Moby Dick.  A lovely limited edition collecting some of Gary A. Braunbeck’s Cedar Hill stories, I bought it in 2007 and finished reading it in 2009, dipping in and out over the whole three years.  The stories within are amazing – beautifully written, often bleak, mournful, emphatic, and disturbing, and strike a real chord with me nine times out of ten.  There lies the problem.  When I come across a Braunbeck story in an anthology, it’s a heartfelt highlight.  Piled one after the other like this, I found the experience of reading it too overwhelming, hence the piecemeal reading over a couple of years.  If a novel is this unrelenting, you push on through, and arise triumphant at the other end.  With a collection, it’s too easy too finish the story you’re on, and take a break.  I genuinely look forward to the second volume, sitting on my shelf right now, which I expect to finish somewhere around 2011…

The Anthology of Dark Wisdom, ed. William JonesThere’s not much point in my actually reviewing this, as it features my story ‘Mopleoli’, so I can hardly be trusted. That said, I do think it’s a particularly good anthology. I enjoyed most of the stories enormously, and a couple (Peter Straub’s mannered and disturbing ‘Mr Aickman’s Air Rifle’ and Christian Klaver’s Sherlock Holmes effort ‘The Adventure of the Solitary Grave’) are among my favourite short stories this year. I’m sure you’d make different choices, and also sure that you’ll enjoy dipping in and out of the book (the best way to enjoy anthologies), a great deal indeed. With a hefty twenty-seven stories to choose from, you get a lot of bang for your buck.

Under the Dome, Stephen King When Chester’s Mill is cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible, impenetrable forcefield, society crumbles beneath the full glare of the world’s media.  This epic read is more science fiction than horror, though there are dark places along the way.  King’s storytelling is as engrossing as ever, and far more than the mystery of the dome, this book’s brilliance is in the huge cast of players.  As the town fractures, and once trivial power struggles become exaggerated as society breaks down, it’s in the detail of how those trapped finds ways to cope with their new world that the novel flies.  Like many epics, the conclusion perhaps doesn’t match the ride that takes you there (I’m probably going to feel much the same way about Lost, when it concludes next year), but it’s an enthralling trip to take.

Absolute Sandman, Volume 1, Neil Gaiman – Collecting the first 20 issues of Gaiman’s Sandman series, one of the finest extended comic book runs ever written (and possibly, one of the finest myths spun in the modern age), there’s almost nothing I can say about this that hasn’t been said before. This is the start of the tale of Dream, the embodiment of same, brother of Death, and Destiny, and Despair, and the rest of the Endless. It’s interesting to watch the series evolve, from the initial attempts to integrate it into the DC comic universe (interesting and mature, but short-lived), to the point where Gaiman seems to realise he has carte blanche to do whatever he likes, and talks about dreams, and myths, and stories. Startling, sometimes horrific, always surprising and poetic, if you’ve never read it, this is going to change how you think about storytelling forever.

Absolute Sandman, Volume 2, Neil Gaiman Lift off – having established itself and found a voice, Gaiman’s Sandman series starts to revolutionise what can be done on the comic book page.  From Lucifer’s abandonment of hell, to a girl trapped in her own childhood fantasies, the series weaves and reweaves around itself, adding impossible layers to the core concept.  In some stories, the titular Sandman turns up only on the fringes, proving that Gaiman can do whatever he wants in this book.  It’s inspiring stuff.  And have I mentioned how beautiful these Absolute editions are – huge, faux-leatherbound volumes collecting art and afterwords, and covers, and more (the Dave McKean art helped define the feel of the series, and looks stunning presented like this).  Not cheap, but absolutely worth having.

World War Z, Max Brooks – A credible and uniquely told account of an international zombie outbreak, which breaks out now, ends in a decade or so, and transforms the political and cultural face of the planet. Relayed as a series of survivor accounts compiled by a researcher who stays mostly to the background in the text, the characterisation is one of the books immediate strengths. What really distinguishes the book though, is the global approach. Many zombie yarns (and there are, these days, a great many) focus on individual struggles against a worlde gonne madde. World War Z starts from this standpoint, but the choice of interviewee includes presidents and generals, as well as Joe Ordinary. Brooks does a fabulous job of exploring culture, political ideology, and more, making the book politically astute, and putting it several steps beyond the usual fare. This, you think when reading, is how it would happen. It’s not really about zombies. It’s about people, and cultures, and the way the world is today. Fascinating, and gripping.

And that’s it.  Well done if you read it, hope you found something in there that makes you want to pick a book up yourself.  Personally, I suspect that if you made it this far, you’re probably an author or publisher who was wondering if I was going to say anything nice about your book, and if I didn’t, my apologies.  Maybe next year.

And if there’s anything you read (or even wrote) this year that you think I might enjoy, speak up.  Finding new, good writing is about people telling other people that they liked something, more than anything else.  If you think you know what my next favourite book might be, or if you’ve comment to make about the above notes, let me know below…Rea

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