As I mentioned in a previous post, where I pulled out the best five books I read this year, my total reading comes to thirty-four books during 2010 (for the first time, many read on my favourite new toy, the Kindle). Not nearly as many as last year. Still, the below are those I got through, with some mini-reviews. As ever, my usual proviso: I’m not a professional book reviewer, and so do my best to avoid books I don’t think I’m going to like. This accounts for the general lack of negativity in these reviews, because after thirty-five years on this earth, I’ve more or less worked out what sort of book is going to suit my different moods.
If you’re interested in what I’m reading and what I think about it, but find these end of year summations a slog, I suggest you join Goodreads (where I posted all of the below as and when I finished each book, and shall continue to do so in 2011) and hook up with me there.
And if you’re looking for those best five books, you can find them here.
Absolute Sandman, Volume 4, Neil Gaiman – And though it’s sort of cheating, I’ve considered the whole Absolute Sandman collection to be one book, so see the above.
Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett – Good fun, though a bit of a retread of familiar themes, that reminded me in places of the earlier Moving Pictures. The Discworld has evolved since that previous tome though, into a more layered and sophisticated place, so identical it most certainly is not. As ever, the central motif – football in this case – is really just a coat-rack where Pratchett can hang his various observations about life, and it’s well suited to the purpose. Not one of the stand-out classics of the Discworld series, but funny and wise nonetheless.
Hiram Grange and the Village of the Damned, Jake Burrows – A not entirely unbiased review, although I didn’t write this book. Rather, along with the author Jake Burrows, I’m one of several authors contributing to the serial novellas that form The Scandalous Misadventures of Hiram Grange. This novella is the first in the series, and Jake launches the character and the series in fine style, littering the short novel with zombies, garden gnomes, and pestilences from the beyond. It’s easily accessible, highly entertaining, and places several players in Hiram’s saga on the stage. Importantly for the first in a series of books set in the same world with the same characters, I think this book is entertaining, memorable, and makes Hiram furiously addictive. Try it and find out. Seriously. I dare you, with garden gnomes on top.
The Naming of the Beasts, Mike Carey – My yearly fix of Fix Castor, former exorcist and now increasingly besieged freelance spiritual operative, is a satisfying one. Picking up from the events of the previous novel, Felix hits a serious drunk as the guilt of his previous failure catches up with him. Asmodeous, a demon he inadvertently bound to one of his best friend’s body many years ago, is loose, and the only way to put him down may be to kill that friend at the same time. Carey messes with Castor’s usual support network throughout the book, turning friends into enemies and former foes into unlikely allies, and shoots the series in the arm by doing so. The end changes Fix’s world too, opening new opportunities for the next book. While this series isn’t exceeding its previous standards, it’s maintaining them elegantly.
The Panda Book of Horror, Stuart Douglas & Paul Magrs – As with the previous story collection about Iris Wildthyme, transtemporal adventuress and frequent companion to an eloquent stuffed panda called Panda, this book walks a thin line between strangeness and silliness. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it fails. It will tickle some readers enormously, and annoy others just as much. For me, Iris and Panda are mostly too off the wall to hold my interest when having strange adventures of their own – while the narrative tricks and humour can be entertaining, they’re by nature a little too contrived for my tastes. That said, those tales in which stories are not happening to Iris, but instead she is happening to other people, are fascinating, and lift the whole thing up. In particular, Simon Guerrier’s ‘The Party in Room Four’, Matt Kimpton’s ‘The Shadow of the Times Before’, and Dale Smith’s ‘The Fag Hag from Hell’ are rich, enjoyable tales, with particularly intriguing characters, that stood out for me as I worked my way through the book.
Bar None, Tim Lebbon – Lebbon returns to horror, and the end of the world – two themes which made his name several years ago – and produces this lovely, poetic story about memory, real ale, and salvation. Six months after plagues claim most of the human race, a handful of survivors must leave the temporary sanctuary they found for themselves, and race across the country to Bar None, the last bar on earth. There’s plenty of mystery in the book, as nature surges up and changes around the harried gang, and splashes of mournful horror abound. It’s also a fast read, finished in three hours and perfect at that length. There is power in memory, and you’ll relive some of yours as you read the book.
The Catacombs of Fear, John L. Probert – A second portmanteau horror novel from Probert, following on from his previous The Faculty of Terror. I enjoyed that book when I read it last year, and this one follows the same basic idea of having five otherwise unconnected tales linked by a framing story, in the style of the old Amicus movies. Unfortunately, I struggled with Catacombs, the contents of which seemed more derivative of seventies cinema than inspired by it. I wonder how my enjoyment of the previous book might have been enhanced by nostalgia for those old British films. For me, the novelty doesn’t sustain a second volume.
The Writer’s Tale, Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook – Oh dear. The original Writer’s Tale in hardback was in my top five books of 2008. In it, Russell T. Davies gives a year’s worth of correspondence detailing agonies and wonders of writing and producing his final regular season of Doctor Who. I loved it, and declared it to be one of only a handful of books I’ve read about writing that I needed to read. Now comes the paperback release, except it contains another three hundred pages, continuing the story through the year in which he produced the five Doctor Who Specials leading to his departure from the series. I started the new material last night, and finished it this morning. It’s as bloody brilliant as the first half, inspiring, and touching, and true. If you’re a writer, of anything, you should read it. It’s also given me my first epiphany in ten years about my own writing, a real mental evolution that knocks down so many self-imposed doors I’m a bit staggered at what I might actually be able to do next. I can’t guarantee that will happen for you, but Jesus, it’s an astonishing feeling. The epiphany also doesn’t come from writing ‘tips’, but just engaging with the mentality and effort Davies demonstrates, from the sum of his thoughts and struggles. I won’t put it into this year’s top five, but that’s only going to be because I did so in 2008, and doing so twice doesn’t seem fair to the other books…
Handling the Undead, John Ajvide Lindqvist – Not your average zombie novel, as you’d expect from the man who brought us Let The Right One In, with its innovative take on vampires. The dead return to Sweden, but not to eat your brains. Mostly, they walk around, bumping into things, studying toys, and trying to make sense of the world with their limited intellectual state. Rather than zombies, this book is more about the people forced to welcome them home. When your loved ones shamble through the door after death, how do you react? Scream, perhaps, but then what? When they won’t go away, when you see echoes of the people they were, what then? This is a book full of appalling grief and love, with the dead as a catalyst for the stories of, primarily, three families, all of whom react in different ways. While it becomes increasingly eerie towards the end, it isn’t a book of big frights, but something far more credible, and in some ways, far harder to work through. With grief at the fore, it plays a less diverse tune than Let The Right One In, and for that reason didn’t quite meet my expectations, but it’s a subsuming, heartfelt read nevertheless.
The Island, Tim Lebbon – There’s plenty going on in this, Lebbon’s return to his fantasy world of Noreela. Beginning with a visceral natural disaster, a tidal wave that smashes a coastal village apart, the plot weaves invasion, body snatching, and something close to a fantasy version of a secret service together into something with a unique flavour. There’s more left unanswered at the end of the book than I would have preferred – indeed, it feels more like it simply stops rather than actually finishing, but the writing is beautiful, and the characters are as flawed and compelling as you could ask for. It feels less complete than the previous Noreela book Fallen, but it’s still a sophisticated slice of fantasy.
Hungry Hearts, Gary McMahon – Part of Abaddon’s Tomes of the Dead series, a selection of unconnected zombie novels, I think I’m right in assuming this to be McMahon’s first novel, though there’s more to come. I’ve long admired McMahon, and the bleak worldview his writing demonstrates. Hungry Hearts does not buck that trend. It’s not a book for those seeking a fun, horror-flavoured romp. It’s brutal, squalid, and often painful to read, a novel grounded in insanity, death, and sickness. Where much horror is ultimately about the battle between good and evil, McMahon isn’t playing that familiar game. He’s holding up the warts of our species and picking at them, the better to show you what you are, and that’s a valuable approach. There’s no redemption to be had in this novel, for the characters at least. If there’s redemption to be had, it’s for the reader, in recognising the thin line that separates them from what lies on the page. A brilliantly told tale, but do go in with your eyes open.
The Ghosts of Manhattan, George Mann – Taking a break from his previous creations Newbury & Hobbes, here Mann rolls his steampunk universe a couple of decades into its future, to Manhattan in the mid-twenties, instantly rejuvenating his own world. Genre-fusing pulp vigilantes into his steampunk world, he launches into an action-packed adventure dotted through with gangsters, molls, biplane battles, and the supernatural. It’s a fun ride, though could have perhaps benefited from a more gradual denouement of the plot, rather than saving all the detail for the final couple of chapters. Still, getting there is a blast, and there’s clearly more to come from the vengeful Ghost.
Hiram Grange and the Twelve Little Hitlers, Scott Christian Carr – One of the best things about being on Shroud Publishing’s Hiram Grange writing team has been the chance to read what the other authors have done. Scott’s entry, the second in the series, knocked me sideways. It features Hiram at his lowest ebb, at the bottom of a drug and absinthe fuelled binge that puts him on the edge of sanity. There are also Hitlers, and Jodie Foster. By the end of the book, Hiram’s world changes forever, and I didn’t know whether to pity the character I had a hand in creating or loathe him. The whole book is strange, blackly funny, and incredibly disorientating. I haven’t read anything like it before and, trust me, neither have you.
Hiram Grange and the Digital Eucharist, Robert Davies – After the crushing conclusion of Hiram Grange and the Twelve Little Hitlers, Hiram has little time to pull himself back together before he’s investigating the mysterious Occlusionist Movement. Old enemies return, seemingly from the grave, as the Movement prepares to unleash its Digital Eucharist, and in doing so enslave the world. It’s action-orientated adventure this time round, part cyberpunk, part demonic horror. It’s worth taking a breath before you start, because this is different again from Jake’s sometimes laugh-out-loud comic darkness, or Scott’s disturbed and surreal emotional landscape. It’s mid-way through the series, and perfect time for an all-out, explosive romp.
Hiram Grange and the Chosen One, Kevin Lucia – Taking the opportunity to get Hiram out of America for a spell, Kevin keeps up the action from the previous book, but spices it a little differently. Where Rob delivered a techno-supernatural thriller, Chosen One serves up a tentacled extravaganza of old school horror. Faeries (not your mother’s), damsels, possessions, shadowy figures in white playing manipulative games behind the scenes – and everyone, it seems, wants a piece of Hiram. Poor Belfast. If you think the city’s been through the ringer in the last forty years, you haven’t seen what Hiram’s going to do with it when he lands. Kevin has a real grip on both the new Hiram universe, and the older ones he’s fusing into it, and the result is a blast.
The Whisperers, John Connolly – Not sure off the top of my head how many Charlie Parker books there have been so far, but the quality, amazingly, continues. An exquisite fusion of thriller, PI novel, the gothic supernatural, and (somehow) Gulf War story, The Whisperers is a book you can’t help but abandon the real world for, and live in for a while. It’s a dark and violent story, but Parker’s his weary, sardonic self throughout, one of my favourite first person narrators, and a pleasure to meet up with again. A book that blends so many genres shouldn’t feel as real as this one does. Just brilliant.
The Song of Kali, Dan Simmons – Until recently, while I’ve been aware of Dan Simmons, I’ve only stumbled across the occasional shorter work of his. That changed with The Terror and Drood, both books which I loved, and they sent me back to this, his first published novel. While the macabre features in his more recent works, The Song of Kali is an unapologetic horror novel, taking an American poet and plonking him in the middle of Calcutta to search for an Indian author once thought deceased until fragments of his new writing start to emerge. It’s not just an atmospheric novel, it’s a novel about atmosphere, and the changes it brings about in the human species. From the miasmic descriptions of Calcutta – a genuinely alien world to the western mind, to the traumatic horrors the characters experience, this is book that grips in the darkest way, compelling and understated, but brilliantly affecting.
Prey, Thomas Emson – A book that was never meant to be, insists the author. Though his previous werewolf yarn Maneater ended ambiguously, there was never meant to be a sequel, and only the passage of time, and a poke from his publisher and others, led to him realising there might be one after all. I’m glad there is. Emson writes summer blockbusters, frenetically paced, explosive horror-thrillers, but the kind that have enough real heart and character to make it worth the entry fee. I think, with the ending, the feudal tale of Laura Greenacre and the Templetons is finally done, but it’s been a splendid ride.
Zombie Britannica, Thomas Emson – I didn’t mean to read another Emson right after Prey, but saw Zombie Britannica on a UK shelf while on holiday, and snatched it up. Emson sets out his stall right away with a genuine quote from an actual scientist: “An outbreak of zombies will result in the collapse of civilisation, with every human infected or dead…”. That’s pretty much how the book proceeds. The zombies themselves aren’t really the story here. Instead, they’re a vicious backdrop for the end of the world, a device against which the stories (set in Wales, Scotland, and England) of three groups of survivors play out. As such, the book functions almost as three short novels set in the same world, each of which provides plenty of thrills and excitement. I didn’t enjoy this as much as Prey, partly because I kept losing track of the supporting characters in each segment (three novels results in three casts), particularly in the Welsh story, but the tales rattle brutally along at such pace, with so many splendidly over the top set pieces, that I couldn’t help but have a good time.
The Thief of Broken Toys, Tim Lebbon – A quiet, affecting mood piece, this novella (beautifully produced by Chizine Publications) deals with the infectious horror of loss. Set in a small coastal village, so well invoked that it becomes a character in its own right, the story follows Ray’s struggle to come to terms with the death of his son. It’s about memory, and pain, and it’s beautifully done. While there’s horror here, of the most personal and intimate variety, there’s also a strange sense of redemption, at least until the shattering conclusion. An intense little read, well worth seeking out.
Miss Wildthyme and Friends Investigate, edited by Stuart Douglas – Four linked novellas from the world of transtemporal adventuress Iris Wildthyme. Unlike the previous two books from Obverse, only the last of these stories star Iris and her sentient stuffed panda friend Panda, and the first three give centre stage to other characters from her previous adventures. The first, Jim Smith’s The Found World is something of a literary mash-up, featuring several characters from the works of Stoker, Conan Doyle, and so forth. Working out who is who is part of the fun, and it’s a bouncy, surprising tale that opens the book in fine spirits. Nick Wallace’s The Irredeemable Love is a stranger beast, a disorientating mystery in the true sense, that forces you to pay attention and do some of the investigating yourself – my favourite story in the book, for that same reason. Cody Schell’s Elementary, My Dear Sheila, is a primary coloured, over-the-top Mexican murder mystery featuring the masked wrestler Senor 105, and is such exuberant fun you can’t help but enjoy it. Finally, as mentioned, Stuart Douglas closes the collection in considerable style with The Shape of Things, giving us a full glass of Wildthyme in contemplative mood, and Panda at his pretentious best. Easily the best of the Wildthyme books from Obverse Books – she and her friends seem to suit the novella length perfectly.
Blockade Billy, Stephen King – A hardback volume, with two slim tales. The first, Blockade Billy, tells the tale of a baseball player who came from nowhere, hiding a dark secret that would go on to ensure that for all of his brilliance, he would ultimately be written out of the history books. The tale works because of the narrator, who once coached the team and saw Billy’s brilliant month of play, and who now tells the tale from the nursing home where he is finishing his days. Like many King characters, he jumps off the page and dances, which is good, because there’s not a lot to the story itself. The bonus short story which pads out the book, Morality, is actually the stronger of the two, and asks how far you’d go for the life you want. It’s not a bad twosome, a pleasant enough couple of hours of story.
Dexter is Delicious, Jeff Lindsay – What is this now, book five? It’s a readable enough novel, but Dexter is no longer the splendid beast who first enthralled me. A family man now, he’s determined to quash his Dark Passenger, the whisperer in his head who drives him to kill. Without his lethal purpose, he’s an aimless, self-absorbed clod, far removed from the clinical killer we took such guilty pleasure in adoring, and much of what made him fresh vanishes. The writing is passable, the plot interesting enough (as Dexter gets drawn into his sister’s investigation of a vampire cult), but too much is missing to call this more than an average entry in the series.
Doctor Who: The Clockwise Man, Justin Richards – While Doctor Who was off the air, for may years, both Virgin and BBC books produced ranges of ongoing novels following the character of the Doctor onwards from where he was last seen on screen. Given that the core audience were no longer children, but those who had been watching when it was on TV, the novels became increasingly sophisticated and mature. I really enjoyed those monthly releases, and was curious about the new range of books that were launched in line with the reinvention of the series in 2005. Alas, the first doesn’t give me much hope. The page count is slim, and while it has several nice twists and turns, it’s a trim, plot-driven volume, with little depth. One thing I’ll give it is that, while it avoids any adult content, the fact that it’s targeted at the family market hasn’t notably led to a dumbing down of the writing. Other than that, I may be being too harsh – clearly, this was written before the first episodes of the new series aired, which might explain the poor characterisation of Rose and Ecclestone’s Doctor. It’s all just… ‘not quite right’.
The Infamous Burke and Hare: Serial Killers and Resurrectionists of Nineteenth Century Edinburgh, R. Michael Gordon – While the mystery of his identity has awarded Jack the Ripper the title of the nineteenth century’s most notorious serial killer, Burke and Hare have the better body count. There’s also much more information available about the events in which they were embroiled, up to and including trial transcripts. If there’s a mystery, it surrounds the extent of the official cover-up, which may or may not have concealed the extent of the medical community’s involvement or knowledge of the murders, and this book does a good job in pulling that out. Where it falls down is in the supposition. With so many facts known, it appears to be hard to resist making assumptions about what happened in the gaps, and the book falls into that trap. Nevertheless, an interesting read.
Life During Wartime, Paul Cornell – Professor Bernice (Benny) Summerfield has a distinguished history. A one time travelling companion of the Doctor, she long ago span off into her own monthly series of audio adventures and books, of which this is one. When Benny returns home from an adventure, she finds her home and place of work, a planetoid housing the Braxiatel Collection, invaded and occupied by the Fifth Axis. Put together with a great deal of care by Cornell, the stories then deal with life during the fascist occupation. Despite the many authors, critical attention has been paid to making this anthology read more like a novel, with real progression of plot and character, and the building tension and desperation as the Axis settle is palpable. It looks mostly to how the characters deal with the situation. Some collaborate, some only seem to, some openly resist, others have too much at stake to risk doing so. Unfortunately for newbies, this intriguing anthology, edited by the character’s creator, is continuity heavy, and ends in a cliffhanger resolved in one of those audios. As such, I can’t really recommend the book if you’re not familiar with the 27th Century archaeologists back story, which is a shame, as it’s brilliant.
The Sum Of All Fears, Tom Clancy – Oh thank God. Thank God it’s over. I picked this up en route to Goa as I’d forgotten to pick up my Kindle, and I felt like I was reading it forever. As always, Clancy’s world is incredibly detailed and credible, in many ways all the more impressive for its sometime parallels to the world we live in today. As ever, the central plot is great. As ever, there’s just too bloody much detail for anybody outside of the military to maintain much interest. The characters are for the most part the same seven or eight core people, given different names and accents, and recycled at whim into a cast of thousands. The thousands are too many to keep track of. The detail of what they’re doing is too monotonous and minuscule to do anything but slow the plot. And while the writing is functional, watch the inelegance of his point of view switches, requiring only a new paragraph to instigate, making it occasionally an act of backtracking and deduction to work out whose thoughts you’re trying to follow. There’s a good story buried in here, but it’s splashed over so pointlessly large a canvas as to require almost forensic reconstruction to be able to see it.
I Shall Wear Midnight, Terry Pratchett – The fourth, possibly the final, Discworld novel featuring witch-in-training Tiffany Aching, and her psychotic, tiny companions the Nac Mac Feegle. One of the few differences between the Discworld books geared for younger readers and the ostensibly adult novels is a streamlining of the plot. Like the previous Aching books, this one sticks closely with Tiffany as she confronts the effects of mass hysteria (the core theme here) on her community, and the Cunning Man who is generating it. Perhaps because of this tightness of focus, it’s a stronger novel than Unseen Academicals, balancing its dark theme against the comedy in the clever, sophisticated way that defines Pratchett’s best work as a social commentator who also writes to entertain. A minor classic of the series.
Stronghold, Paul Finch – A classic siege novel, with zombies? What’s not to like? It’s the thirteenth century, and a brutal English army has pacified the recalcitrant Welsh on behalf King Edward Longshanks, slaughtering everything in their path. When Druids raise those dead cadavers as a vast undying army, the English hole up in Castle Grogan, and a horrific siege commences. Finch has done his research, and the period setting is impressive and well used. Shifting things to the thirteenth century also gives zombies a new edge, and as they form against the English in their tens of thousands, there’s an increasing sense of claustrophobia as the situation worsens, and desperation pulls very human failings to the fore. A grand, dark adventure, particularly memorable for the various creative ways in which zombies can be put to use as siege weapons.
And there you go for another year (though, if that somehow wasn’t enough to wade through, you can go and have a look at what I read in 2009, 2008, and 2007). So, with that in mind, what haven’t I read in 2010 that staggers you? What should be on my 2011 list, this time next year? Let me know.