A few days ago I posted my five favourite books that I read in 2011. Here’s the rest. It’s a long list, perhaps best skimmed for titles of interest. If you want to follow along with what I’m reading and reviewing in real time next year, look me up on Goodreads, from where this list is copied and pasted.
Full Dark, No Stars, Stephen King – A collection of four novellas – a story length that King has always excelled in – this time of the bleakest variety. This is not an optimisitc book, in which good conquers evil, but one in which horror and the potential to create it lives inside us all. The opening tale, ‘1922’, explores the brutal psychological ramifications that follow when the narrator convinces his son to help murder his wife. It’s a downward slide from the very first page, more so because King has lost none of his knack for creating identifiable characters. Whether there are supernatural overtures to the story are left very much to the reader, though I suspect there are none, and that the narrator at the time of his confession is a less than reliable observer of the world. ‘Big Driver’, the second tale, is revenge-based, following the trauma of a rape-victim, and the cold-blooded way in which she tries to re-empower herself. For me, this is one of the two best stories in the book, because for all its cruelty, there is also a catharsis for the character, and a genuine empathy for her plight. ‘A Fair Extension’, probably the weakest story, hangs around a perfectly sound idea (being able to shed your own pain, if you’re prepared to offload it onto somebody else), but suffers from padding. Even as the shortest novella in the book, and well written though it is, it struggles to sustain its length, and probably would have made a better short story. Finally, there’s ‘A Good Marriage’. What would happen if, after a quarter century of quiet, satisfying marriage, you found out that your spouse had been a serial killer for longer than you had known them? What would then happen if they knew you knew? A brilliant, suspenseful close to the book, and the second of my favourites. As a whole, with the exception of ‘A Fair Extension’, this is King at his best.
An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, John O’Farrell – A recent writing project having highlighted how poor my knowledge of history actually is, I picked this volume up to make inroads into amending that. The first thing that hits you is the humour, and style thereof. It’s largely anachronistic, crudely shoving contemporary comparisons into historical mis-context in an often distracting manner. At least, it does so for the first half of the book. As things progress, and history catches up with the modern day, this seems to change somewhat. The jokes become funnier, spinning more naturally from the context being discussed and the psychology of those involved. I’d go as far as to say the last half of the book was genuinely enjoyable. A book of two halves then – a comprehensive overview of Britain, defining the country primarily by those who have ruled it over the ages, that both does and doesn’t succeed in being funny.
30 Days of Night, Steve Niles – The graphic novel on which the film is based, and a striking looking thing it is too. Much has been made of the ‘high concept’ basis for the book – in Alaska, there sits a town called Barrow, which experiences thirty days of night every winter, where the sun goes down and fails to rise for a month. The vampires turn up on day one, and the siege begins. It’s a bloody, brutal affair, but not plot-heavy. Much of the book’s appeal lies not in the writing, beyond that excellent concept, but in Ben Templesmith’s jaw-dropping painted visuals. It’s a murky, disturbing world that’s been placed on the page, which makes up a lot for the fairly slim plot and lightweight characterisation. Not a literary classic by any means, but in the world of comics, where concept, plot, character, and art perform a unique dance to bring you a blend, it deserves its reputation.
30 Days of Night: Dark Days, Steve Niles – The continuation of the story very wisely leaves the one-trick location of Barrow, and makes for LA, where a survivor of the Barrow massacre attempts to open the world’s eyes to the evil that walks the streets. The character work here is far better than the original, with revenge a recurring theme among both humans and vampires, and some nice twists and turns in the tale. Templesmith, as ever, is on fire, and the whole thing looks beautiful. It’s a promising extension and development of the first book.
30 Days of Night: Return to Barrow, Steve Niles – Back to Barrow for the third book, and the law of diminishing returns sets in. Beautiful as it all is, this feels like cut scenes from the original. There are thirty days of night. Vampires turn up. People die. Been there, read it, and the ‘surprise’ development in the final pages is both obvious and a little hokey. Time to take a break from this series, I think. It doesn’t put me off reading more down the line, to see if the world Niles is developing broadens out again as it did with the second book, but it doesn’t make me want to rush to find out.
Coffin County, Gary A. Braunbeck – A book that almost needs two reviews, one for frequent visitor’s to the author’s infamous Cedar Hill township, and those who have never been before. A great deal of Braunbeck’s fiction is set in Cedar Hill, a small American town where ‘weird shit happens’. This novel begins to pick away at the reasons why. For the long term reader, there’s plenty to make your jaw drop, revelations about several recurring characters, and some of the events that have defined the place over the years. For the Cedar Hill virgin, taking the story in isolation, it doesn’t work as well, simply because it plays to the grand myth at the expense of this specific story. Braunbeck’s unflinching gaze takes you through some disturbing and heartbreaking vistas. If you’re new, the book is less than the sum of its parts. If you’ve been following along for a while, it’s a crucial keystone in the Cedar Hill mythos.
To Each Their Darkness, Gary A. Braunbeck – Part biography, part writer manifesto, this is a seriously impressive book, particularly if you’re drawn to the darker end of the fiction scale. Most admirable is the way that Braunbeck has taken a series of genuinely horrific tragedies in his life, brutally and plainly laid them out for you to re-experience with him, and allowed them to merge into a solid mission statement. If you know Braunbeck’s harrowing, humane works, it explains a lot. The book isn’t perfect though, particularly in the way that movies from outside the mainstream are used to highlight techniques of interest to the horror writer. Fine if you’ve watched those movies – and the very reason Braunbeck discusses them is because they informed his own writing. On the other hand, if you’re an aspirant writer who hasn’t seen those films, even though the author details the parts he is discussing and why they’re of note, the points are made less vividly. That said, this is one of the few tricks the book misses, and I walked away feeling renewed about my own shoddy attempts at fiction, ready to look at them afresh. What writer could ask for more?
Storm Front, Jim Butcher – I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to check in with Harry Dresden, the world’s only listed professional wizard, as I’ve been staring at this first book in the series on bookshelves for some time. Now that I’ve dipped in, I’ve got a real thirst for these adventures. I love a good first person narrator, the harder boiled the better, and once you throw in magic and the supernatural this is right up my street. Storm Front is a fast paced introduction to Butcher’s downtrodden leading man, setting up relationships and hinting at mysteries that I’m sure will unravel more fully in future books. It’s page turning good fun.
Fool Moon, Jim Butcher – On to the second Harry Dresden novel, packed with betrayals, werewolves of many different varieties, and a much enhanced body count. Harry himself is smashed around something terribly here, and in the background there are hints that his family history might not be everything he once believed. Crisp, effective characterisation and a splendidly dry wit, make this every bit as page turning a read as the last book.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Long Way Home, Joss Whedon – Prompted by the complete run of Buffy as a well considered Christmas present, I thought I’d dip into to the official season eight, Joss Whedon’s continuation of the series in graphic novel form. The first volume, while setting up some of the themes that will play out across the series, is a bit disappointing. While the writing is ‘fine’, the characters don’t come over as quite themselves. Some of the wit seems forced. It feels like Whedon hasn’t yet got back into the swing of things. While there’s enough novelty in finding out what happened to everybody after Sunnydale was destroyed in season seven to keep the pages turning, it just doesn’t feel quite right. Add to that some serious visual editing problems, where the jump between scenes is unclear, and this leaves a dissatisfying taste.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: No Future for You, Brian K. Vaughn – Abandoning Buffy for the second arc of season eight, Brian K. Vaughn takes over the writing to catch up with Faith and Giles, on a mission to eliminate a rogue slayer. For me, season eight finds its feet with this volume, adjusting more confidently to the comic format. Faith’s darker world, and her struggle with her worst excesses, is also a perfect place to put Giles, whose utilitarian approach to problem solving no longer sits easily in Buffy’s world. Suddenly, the series has promise again.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Wolves at the Gate, Drew Goddard – Where Whedon felt off-key writing the first arc of the new Buffy season, Drew Goddard (who also wrote the screenplay for the excellent Cloverfield) absolutely nails it. For the first time, Buffy and her core team sound like themselves, and the plot drives along in perfect symmetry with the televised version. Witty, over the top, and emotionally honest, the script even puts right what once went wrong with Dracula’s sole appearance in the show, and makes it work. This is what I was hoping for when I picked up the first volume, and it was worth waiting for.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Time of Your Life, Joss Whedon – Buffy creator and showrunner takes over the reigns of season one again… and more or less drops the ball, again. While the Buffy seen here is a better match for the screen version than his last attempt, it more or less ignores the character’s progression through this season, and sticks out like a sore thumb because of it. As for the travelling to the future, and meeting the future slayer ‘Fray’… why? It makes little sense, what explanation there is is badly passed over, and nothing is really gained from the whole episode, other than a vague suggestion that, as far as history is concerned, Buffy’s slayer army isn’t even a footnote. It’s not awful, but it’s disappointing after the recent books.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Predators and Prey, (various, and this is so poor I’m not motivated to find links) – Oh hell. Shark. Jumped. This collection of short stories set mid-season is, frankly, dreadful. A vampire gets a reality TV show, and the world starts to become pro-vampire, anti-slayer? What the hell? Dawn becomes a porcelain doll? You what now? Buffy has to fight a rogue group of slayers, fails, and runs away? Erm, really? Bad, bad, bad.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Retreat, Jane Espenson – If I hadn’t bought the first six volumes of Buffy season eight in one go, I would never have read on after the last book. I wish that had been the case. With the world now anti-slayer (thanks to a vapid vampire with a reality show), and an army out to slaughter them, Buffy and her slayerettes make the only sensible decision. Run away, give up their powers and responsibility, and become just like everyone else. Then, of course, the bad guy’s army find them anyway, and they realise what a resoundingly stupid decision that was. Resoundingly stupid. Contrary to all logic. What the hell were the writers thinking? Why did I waste time with this book? Why did I order the next book before I got this far?
Grave Peril, Jim Butcher – Oh, thank God, something worth reading. Book three in the Dresden Files, and Harry’s life gets ever more stamped on. This time he’s faced with a ghost with a grudge who’s threatening the few people in his life that he cares for, the vengeance of a vampire queen, and the predations of his fairy godmother. Come the end, certain aspects of his life have changed (seemingly) irreversibly, and it’s a more damaged man who closes the book than starts it off. To be fair, this isn’t quite as gripping as the previous two books (too much time in the land of faerie, rather than the grittier backdrop of Chicago), but after the abomination that was Retreat, the last thing I read, I give this a million points.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Twilight, Brad Metzer – Why am I doing this to myself? Season eight of Buffy gets, though it didn’t previously seem possible, even more unlikely. The villain of the piece is revealed, which is shocking mostly because with it comes a series of justifications and dilemmas that just don’t ring true for these characters. Page turning, only in the sense that I was desperate to move on to something else.
Fray, Joss Whedon – Finally, finally, a Buffy graphic novel from Whedon that’s worth reading. Set hundreds of the years in the future, the story is the tale of a new Slayer being called, and she’s no Buffy Summers. Distinct from the TV series, set in a darker, grubbier world, the book nevertheless manages to reflect the very best aspects of the TV show and effortlessly turns them into panels. The characterisation is as crisp as the dialogue, and demonstrates that Whedon really can do this comic book thing as well as he does TV, which makes the faltering, comic book continuation of Buffy’s own story in the season eight graphic novels all the more baffling. Fray was a limited series, and as far as I know there are no plans to develop her further, which is a crying shame. This (and a brief and confusing guest spot in the the Buffy comics), is all you get, so treasure what is easily the most authentic continuation of the TV show.
Conjure, Mark West – Mark West writes heartfelt, traditional horror, taking the best of what developed in the eighties (and ignoring the bad old stuff that was spat out in a publishing glut where anything with a skull on the cover could end up in bookstores) and giving it a fresh new presentation. Conjure is a straightforward little novella, the power of which comes not from a twisting plot (it’s clear where the story’s going about a third of the way through), but from heartfelt characters, who are honestly portrayed. The story follows Beth and Rob, soon to be parents, soon (possibly) to be married, as they escape the drudge of their lives with a weekend break to the seaside town of Heyton. The timing’s bad, because an ancient monument has just been damaged, and something has escaped. Something vicious, with a liking for babies… The plot is a muscular straight line, pacy and exciting, and though it left some loose ends dangling, I had a good time with it. It’s not quite up there with the author’s full length novel In The Rain With The Dead, but it’s always good to get some West. It’s unfortunate that, having read the book on the Kindle, there are a many formatting problems with my copy, especially some strange tabulation, which do the author and his story little service – I hesitate to mention this, as nobody else has, so I’m beginning to wonder if it’s just my copy – but it really did hamper the reading experience.
Pretty Little Dead Things, Gary McMahon – In a world packed with first person supernatural thrillers, you really need to bring something new to the field if you want to make an impression. What McMahon offers up is a world view stripped of joy and hope, creating a bleak, sunless environment that’s startling. Thomas Usher, narrator of the piece, is an emotionally crippled hero, unable to move on from the death of his wife and child many years before, in what he has long believed to be a tragic car accident. Cursed somehow with the ability to see the dead, who are drawn to seek his help in helping them move on, he has drifted from horror to horror, waiting for his dead family to find him. As the novel opens, he has been avoiding his ability after a bad experience (the short story of which is added to the book as an extra) some months before, but it isn’t long before the murders of three women connected to a sleazy club force him back into the game. The writing is splendid, and McMahon’s presentation of the points where the supernatural and natural drift together is unique, and makes for some captivating moments. If the novel has a downside, it’s that Usher’s self-pity, and the genuinely grim plot, can be heavy going at times, and I wished sometimes for some light to offset all the gloom. On balance, this doesn’t detract from a captivating read, featuring some extraordinary creations (the horrific Mr Shiloh being one I suspect and hope Usher will meet again), beautifully packaged up by Angry Robot Books.
A Gathering of Crows, Brian Keene – When five strangers literally swoop into the dying town of Brinkley Springs, their goal is nothing short of the slaughter of every living thing within the town limits. The townsfolk go head to head with the preternatural visitors, and they have an unlikely secret weapon – a stranger called Levi Stoltzfus, who most assume to be Amish, but who is much more. One of the most enjoyable books Keene has written, the very simple town-under-siege plotline rockets along, bodies mount up, and the survivors get increasingly desperate. Levi is a fascinating character, better presented here than in his previous outing in Ghost Walk. A sort of warrior priest, he’s an unfolding enigma in Keene’s labyrinthine Universe, and I’m looking forward to seeing him again.
The Rising: Deliverance, Brian Keene – A return to the world of his first novel The Rising, and Reverend Martin, one of the central characters of that book. The book takes place at the same time as the first chapters of that seminal novel. Zombies have risen, and the world is winding down. Some way along the line, Reverend Martin is destined to save a man called Jim, and join him in his quest to save his child. This novella is the story of why he did that, leading up to that first meeting. It’s a small character piece, about faith and doubt – a neat little vignette. It doesn’t quite stand alone as a piece in its own right, but as anybody who seeks out the (very limited) novella is likely to have read The Rising anyway, they’ll find this an effective companion piece, that adds a little more depth to an already excellent tale.
Six Days, Kelli Owen – Debut novels can be clunky things, full of good ideas let down by inexperienced execution. The problems are predictable, and usually inevitable. Somehow, perhaps by spending years writing and celebrating writing before committing to her own first novel, Owen has sidestepped most of this. Where it remains in traces is in the occasional dialogue, which doesn’t scan as naturalistically as speech should. Fortunately, there’s not a lot of dialogue to be going on with. The story opens with the character Jenny’s eyes, as she awakens in blackness, entombed somewhere cold and dark with no memory of how she got there. The novel functions as a thriller as she tries to escape, as a whodunnit as she flashes back over those who might have cause do to her harm, and as a character study as she recalls critical moments in her life that made her the woman she has become. It’s a gripping read, and my only complaint is that I felt cheated by the ending. While it might be realistic, for me it wastes the strength of the woman who has been fleshed out over the previous pages. Still, it’s a powerful debut, and I’m off to see if I can get hold of Owen’s latest novella.
The Road to the Dark Tower, Bev Vincent – I read this in pretty much a sitting on the way back from the World Horror Convention in Texas, where I picked up a copy from the author. I’m a huge fan of King’s epic seven part series, which was my main reason for picking the book up, but really didn’t know what to expect from this. I was disappointed, in the end. Though well written, the book is more summary than exploration. I suppose if you hadn’t understood the books in the first place, the chapter long synopses of each novel might be useful, but other than that I struggled to find much value in them. There’s a chapter on the long gestation of series, including the often bitter impatience of the fans at the time waiting for the next volume, which is interesting reading. For those unfamiliar with connections to King’s other works, a chapter summarising those novels and how they fit in might also be interesting. Having read everything King’s written though I found this a little obvious, as I was hoping to have highlighted things I’ve missed rather than just the most overt entries. A beginner’s guide to the series, this is unlikely to delight long term fans.
Clickers, J.F. Gonzalez and Mark Williams – I first read this book over a decade ago, when it was released in its first ebook edition (a floppy disk, for those who remember such things). I thought it was brilliant back then, but alas, when I wanted to reread it I found the my current laptop has no appropriately sized slots for floppy disks. Fortunately, the book has been in and out of print with various publishers since that time, and is now available in an affordable paperback edition from Deadlite Press. It’s everything I remember. First though, I should point out the single thing that it has no pretensions of being. Literary. That’s not to say it isn’t well written (it is), but just that it will not cause you to re-examine aspects of your life in a profound new way. What it is, is a fabulous B-movie monster fest. Giant poisonous crabs! Berserk mer-men! A town under threat! I usually dislike this kind of book, as its simplicity and the expectations it sets up are examples of the basic, crowd-pleasing stuff that can cause Joe Public to look down his nose at my favourite genre. Stuff Joe, in this instance at least. Clickers has a charm and ballsy enthusiasm that pulls it off. It doesn’t even matter when a rocket launcher turns up in the least likely place, just when it’s needed. That’s what happens in the type of movie this is lovingly recreating on the page, and if you embraced that intention, it makes you laugh out loud in the best way. The book delivers on its horror label, but does it with a smile and a wink.
Krimson, Thomas Emson – The second volume of a trilogy, Kardinal picks up three years after the first book Skarlet left off. There’s a lot going on in this novel – political machinations as an ancient bloodline schemes to turn the United Kingdom into a vampire nation, and a ground level rebellion as the survivors from the first book launch a guerilla campaign from hiding. It’s a very fast read despite the size of the book, plot-driven to the point of breathlessness, and avoids the potential trap of simply repeating the action of the first book. Emson builds on his vampire history along the way, with flashbacks across a history that includes Alexander the Great, Abraham, Vlad Tepes, and others. A fun, furious summer beach read.
Waiting Out Winter, Kelli Owen – An apocalypse in action, as the accidental release of biting flies carrying a deadly cross-species plague begins to wipe out America. Despite the premise, this is a small story, set primarily in a single sealed up house. Although well-written, this didn’t work for me. There’s too much sitting around talking, explaining what’s happened and what might happen, and not enough doing. With the exception of a couple of splendidly executed home invasions, and despite some very well expressed characterisation, this is a book of concept without enough follow-through on its promise. Between conversations, long weeks are played out over occasional paragraphs, before returning to the characters. For me, this made things a little leaden. An apocalypse that you don’t see much of loses a lot of tension.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Last Gleaming, Joss Whedon – A book that redeems itself only by undoing all of the stuff that went before, and rebooting the Buffyverse back into something that might have a bit of life left in it. Joss Whedon all but apologises for Season 8 in the afterword, which is something.
The Curse of Capistrano, Johnston McCulley – The original story of Zorro, and what a lurid pleasure it is. The plot is thin, the prose about as purple as I can deal with, but it’s such tongue in cheek fun you can see exactly why it’s sparked a legacy of movies, TV shows, books, and comics. The biggest surprise is in the end pages, which effectively end the Zorro story once and for all. Don’t worry too much about that, of course. The author certainly didn’t, and went on to ignore his own ending in later books and stories. If you’ve any lingering love of pulp heroism, featuring flashing blades, the buckling of swashes, and feisty damsels, you really should check this out.
Summer Knight, Jim Butcher – After a break from the Dresden Files, returning to the series is a bit of a pleasure. Tempting though it is to plough through them all one after the other, I find myself craving variety after a while. That’s no reflection on the series in general though. After a shattering turn in his love life at the end of the previous book, during which he managed to kick off a war between the secret worlds of wizardry and vampirism that exist in his version of the world, he’s ducking assassins at every turn, barely able to hold himself together. He’s certainly in no state to get involved in a second war between factions of the Faerie, while at the same time trying to prevent his own people from executing him. The humour and action are as smoothly delivered as ever, and the stakes get higher. Where previously Harry has, more or less, been able to compete with the powers he’s come up against, here he’s far out of his depth, and the book becomes more about his wits than his wizardry. Tremendous fun, but not a jumping on point.
Death Masks, Jim Butcher – The vampire war that has been playing in the background of the Dresden books comes further to the fore here, as Harry is challenged to a duel to the death in order to finish it one way or another. At the same time, a powerful Christian artifact has been stolen, and he must track it down before a band of incredibly powerful fallen angels try to use it to bring the whole apocalypse forward. More high stakes, tongue-in-cheek urban fantasy, with those angels making a particularly memorable addition to the series.
Blood Rites, Jim Butcher – In which our wizard hero takes a job investigating murders on a porn set. Not bad work, if you can get it. More notable perhaps are some major revelations about Harry’s murky family history. Even he hasn’t been entirely sure where he came from, and what he thought he knew has been challenged through whispers and implications as the series has progressed. At last, this book gives some semi-answers, while skillfully raising more questions than it settles. The fact that Harry may not be the last of his line still in the world is a game changing revelation,that I hope isn’t skipped over in the coming books.
Clickers II: The Next Wave, J.F. Gonzalez & Brian Keene – I reacquainted myself with the original Clickers earlier this year, and the sequel has been sitting on my shelf for a while, so I dived in. Where I was expecting another popcorn book, perhaps demonstrating the law of diminishing returns, I was pleased to find the story evolve, with the book ending up a very different beast as a result. Instead of monsters in a small town, here we have a nation under siege, with characters at all levels (from the streets to the corridors of the White House) threatened by the marauding beasts. Rather than small town monster movie then, this is more disaster flick than anything else. The writing and characterisation, effective enough in the first novel, is more confident here too. Gonzalez is a more experienced writer, and it shows. His co-contributor, Brian Keene, is also on good form, and this type of horror scenario is one he’s shown himself skilled at time and again. The result is a more varied story, on a grander scale, and a worthy development from the original.
Starve Better, Nick Mamatas – As a writer, I like to read at least a book a year by other writers, writing about writing. A bit circular, but there you go. I find it gives me a bit of perspective on my own approach to listen to others discussing theirs. Consider it the equivalent of water cooler chat at the workplace. Books like this are all a matter of perspective, in a literal sense. They’re one person’s point of view, usually a tract on ‘what works for me’. They’re not to be taken as gospel, and the key to a good tome is an author with the experience and honesty to explain without patronising. Mamatas has written full time for much of the last decade, and this book is about the choices he made in order to do so. It’s funny, and extremely honest, and leaves little room for the sort of self-delusion most beginning writers have about the future that might await them when they ditch the day job. Fiction, for example, can only be part of your portfolio, and Mamatas gives some excellent facts and figures about why writing non-fiction is a must (it pays far better, there are more opportunities, etc). A very worthwhile read, particularly for anybody considering whether they want to drive themselves towards a full time writing career.
Bite-Sized Horror, Johnny Mains – I’ve been looking forward to this, the first volume of the Obverse Quarterly, four slim paperbacks covering all branches of genre fiction, delivered every three months or so as part of a very nice subscription package (they can also be picked up individually from the Obverse website). For me, it’s a beautiful little White Elephant stall of a experiment – for the most part, I’ve no idea what’s heading my way, and look forward to finding some things I would otherwise never stumble across. Of the four books making up the first year, Bite-Sized Horror is the most predictable, a slim anthology of six horror stores, doing exactly what it says on the tin. By and large, the selection is excellent. While a couple of stories missed the mark for me, others hit the spot. Despite his writing having been around for a while, I’m new to Reggie Oliver’s work, but I can see why he’s so well regarded. While the plotting is a little predictable, the presentation of mood and place in The Brighton Redemption is extremely affecting. David A. Riley’s His Pale Blue Eyes wears’s its zombie post-apocalypse heart on its sleeve, but still manages to surprise with a cold and brutal ending. The last stand out for me was The Carbon Heart by Conrad Williams, a disorienting and slightly surreal nightmare that closes the book in bewildering style. An excellent first quarter, then. Bring on the next!
Unnatural History, Jonathan Green– The first of Green’s Pax Brittania novels. I wanted to like this more than I did. I’ve enjoyed novels from Abaddon Books enormously in the past, with some of their stand alone zombie novels (from Simon Bestwick, Gary McMahon, and Paul Finch) among the strongest of that sub genre that I’ve read in the last few years. I’ve enjoyed Green’s short fiction for the Warhammer Universe too. Unfortunately, though I was keen to find a steampunk series that would plug the gap between George Mann releases, this one fails for me. It’s like the novelisation of a shallow, effects driven summer blockbuster, all larger than life action sequences, with little depth in the plotting or motivation underlying it all. It’s purple-prosed, comic book fun, I suppose, but it hasn’t sold me on the series.
Dead Beat, Jim Butcher – I just lap this stuff up. My consumption of Harry Dresden this year has been notable for its excess. In part, it’s because this particular branch of dark fantasy is so far away from the style of the books I’m writing myself this year, that it makes an easy break from it all. Anyway, this novel takes Harry in some new directions, as he’s recruited by an organisation that he loathes, and finds himself making bargains with temptation itself. You know it’s all going to come back to haunt him… more of the same, with the emergence of some new ongoing threads, and Harry’s as entertaining a narrator as ever.
Proven Guilty, Jim Butcher – The core plot of this instalment is perhaps a little lighter than others, with much of the action taking place at a horror convention, where creatures that feed on fear begin to appear and slaughter. Harry gets involved through the daughter of one of his best friends, who has an enormous secret that’s going to shift the shape of Harry Dresden’s life. The plot bounces along, taking some interesting by-roads into the unexplored attraction between Harry and his cop friend Karrin Murphy, and when it all pulls together in explosive fashion at the end, it’s typically satisfying.
White Night, Jim Butcher – Low level magical practitioners in Chicago are committing suicide. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to look like. Harry has doubts, and with his new apprentice Molly in tow, sets himself to finding out who is targeting those he has set himself up as the protector of. The list of suspects isn’t big, and the fact that it includes his half-brother Thomas is more than a little problematic. A fine entry in the series – though there’s little development in Harry here, his struggle to train his new apprentice Molly, and save her from her worst excesses, shows him in a different light.
Small Favour, Jim Butcher – The Denarians are back, one-time humans wearing fallen angels on their souls, and about the most evil creatures Harry’s come up against. To survive their attentions, and save a child with the sum of human knowledge stored in her hindbrain, Harry calls all of his allies to him, and some pay too high a price for their friendship with the most notorious wizard on the planet. More satisfying world-building, and a genuine tension between the light-hearted (Harry targeted by goat assassins), and the serious (the price paid by his closest friends, for the privilege of knowing him).
Turn Coat, Jim Butcher – For a while now, the Dresden books have been floating the idea that behind much of what seems wrong in Harry’s world might be the work of an organisation we haven’t seen, a mysterious Black Council of powerful practitioners. In Turn Coat, the suggestion is confirmed. Somebody has framed Warden Morgan, a man who hates everything Dresden is but nevertheless turns to him for help. In proving Morgan’s innocence, Harry roots out corruption at the heart of the White Council of Wizards. While the traitor’s identity is a bit of a let down, the implications of his infiltration and exposure run deep.
Changes, Jim Butcher – The title says it all, really. After eleven books of establishing Harry Dresden’s life and world, in this one novel Butcher rips it all away, ready to start again. It’s excellent timing. While I’ve enjoyed the series, familiarity necessarily breeds contempt. Opening with the discovery that Dresden has a child he never knew about, who’s in horrible danger, the novel delivers blow upon blow to the main character, driving him to desperate lengths in the race to save his daughter. In doing so, he makes choices he would once have abhorred, but it’s clear that he’s prepared to sacrifice anything and everything to save his girl. And he does. The final pages show just what he’s given up, and present the reader with the first cliffhanger in the history of the series.
Ghost Story, Jim Butcher – Dresden really can’t catch a break. Even when he’s dead, he’s not allowed to relax, but instead has to head back to the mortal world as an insubstantial shade to hunt down his own killer. After the epic reach of the previous book, this is necessarily smaller and more intimate. Most interesting is the radical development in the supporting cast, who are showing the strain of months spent defending Chicago in Harry’s absence. It’s clearly been a hard road to walk, and has not been kind on Murphy, Molly, and the others. Some of the book’s most powerful moments leave you to compare these hard-edged, brittle people with how they once were.
Side Jobs: Stories from the Dresden Files, Jim Butcher – For the most part, a collection of bouncy short stories set between various Harry Dresden novels. Enjoyable, if inconsequential, the book is improved by two novellas told from the first person perspectives of two supporting characters. The first is Thomas, Harry’s half-brother, and details his role in a war even Harry doesn’t know about it. The second is told by Karrin Murphy, and is set just after Harry’s death at the end of the novel Changes. Both succeed by presenting Harry from a different angle, and in the eyes of others, it’s easier to see what a tremendous, terrifying character he can be.
Born Standing Up, Steve Martin – Martin’s own look back at how and why he drove himself to become one of the biggest names in stand up comedy during the seventies, this memoir is a thoughtful and considerate recounting of his motivations and method. It makes clear how much thought and consideration went into the creation of a profoundly silly act, and details the many, many lows (and occasional highs) of his struggle, without overt sentiment. A fast read, that does a good job of recreating the gigs, venues, and people that made up his early life, right up until the day he walked away from stand up forever.
Father Time, Lance Parkin – Featuring Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor, Father Time is one of a number of novels published by BBC Books when the series was on hiatus. It’s also from halfway through an arc-plot, in which the Doctor can’t remember who he is or what’s happened to him. Accept that, and jump in. I’m sure there are additional references to that arc through the book, but I didn’t spot them, and had no trouble enjoying the book in its own right. The story takes place over a decade, and finds the Doctor accidentally adopting a child with several striking abilities of her own, whose life has been marked by deadly enemies. It’s a fun romp, extremely well written, but some of the more adult themes (the book range was at that time aimed at the previous television audience, who had grown up a bit since watching on the tellybox) might make it unsuitable for younger kids. Doctor Who, but not quite for all the family.
UR, Stephen King – Not ‘King at his unsettling best’ at all, despite the blurbs, but a great storyteller at his most mediocre. Designed as a big advert for the Amazon Kindle, the story of a device which downloads great literary masterpieces that never were and news that hasn’t happened yet is entertaining enough, but never transcends its intentions (to mention the awesomeness of the Kindle a lot). Two years later, when a Kindle is less a thing of wonder than before, the story already feels dated. Not a bad story, but don’t get your hopes up if you chance it.
Team Up, Paul Magrs & George Mann – Hold it one way, and this book is a collection of short stories by George Mann, featuring his Newbury and Hobbes steampunk characters. Flip it over, and it’s an array of short stories from Paul Magrs. Two books in one (with no link to connect them, really). I love both the idea and the execution. Both collections are probably too small to warrant buying alone, but together they make a splendid little volume. Mann gives us The Sacrificial Pawn and other stories, presenting some splendid steampunk mysteries from different points in the notable alternative history he’s building up across books. Magrs takes a more scattered approach with The Dreadful Flap and other stories, throwing in a range of stories featuring characters I know (Iris Wildthyme), and characters I don’t. There are pluses to both approaches. Mann’s little collection is more cohesive. Magrs gives us more thematic variety, but the results are more hit and miss. Of the two, Mann’s delivers better for me, but both are splendid samplers of each author’s work, and I hope this is something Obverse Books experiments further with.
Mile 81, Stephen King – Another ebook exclusive, and better by far than the product friendly UR, this novelette is an addition to King’s ‘scary stories wot have cars in them’ sub genre. In truth, it’s a series of vignettes. There is a car, parked by the edge of the highway with a door hanging open, and it does horrible things to you if you touch it. The story is really just a series of encounters in which people do just that, but they’re good vignettes, well fleshed out and engaging. The story doesn’t overstay its welcome, and you’d be satisfied of you paged through it in an anthology. Is it worth the standalone price tag? I’m glad I checked it out, s we’ll leave it at that.
The Immorality Engine, George Mann – Third in the Newbury & Hobbes steampunk novels, following Crown agent Sir Maurice Newbury Hobbes and his assistant Veronica Hobbes. Originally I was under the impression this was going to be a trilogy, but the ending has such remarkable suggestions for ongoing adventures that it seems Mann has changed his mind. This is a good thing, as the series is improving with age. On this outing, the implications of the mystery are more personal than before, with the life of Veronica’s sister tied to the heart of the mystery, and Newbury’s opium flirtation now an almost crippling addiction. It’s a dark backdrop for a dark tale, in which they come to realise that the Empire’s (and their own) greatest enemy might sit like a canker in the heart of the very thing they thought they were fighting for. High octane, adventuresome stuff, with characters that continue to enthral.
The Burning Soul, John Connolly – A great mystery novel, if not perhaps the best Charlie Parker mystery novel. Parker seems to work best when dropped into the middle of contention, where he’s best suited to poke, beat, and inflame. Here, drawn to the twin mysteries of a released (allegedly redeemed) child killer being taunted anonymously in a small community, and a missing child from the same area, he’s curiously restrained. For once, the action doesn’t happen because of Parker (though he intercedes at a couple of key moments), but around him. It’s still a stunning novel, even though the child killer’s great secret seemed (to me at least) obvious almost from the start. It’s lifted by Connolly’s elegiac, haunted prose. As a chapter in Parker’s life though, it’s a placeholder rather than a game changer.
Running Through Corridors (Volume 1: The 60s), Robert Shearman & Toby Hadoke – An odd book, and one that’s going to appeal to Doctor Who fans only. The estimable Rob Shearman decided one day that he wanted to watch or (in the case of episodes missing from the archive) listen to every televised episode of Doctor Who, in order, right from the start. To enhance the pleasure (gluttony is always best shared), he convinced Toby Hadoke to join him. This book is part one of that quest, in which they discuss each story in turn, trying their best to concentrate on the good (and occasionally failing). This volume takes them through the first two actors to play the role, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton. It’s a tome for fans, but if you are one, it’s an intelligent, often funny discourse, that manages never to be disrespectful. Best of all, the conversation is inclusive. Reading the book is like sitting next to Shearman and Hadoke in a pub as they get into it, and you wouldn’t want to interrupt there either. Buy it if you’re a big fan, or know one, and you’ll be very glad you did.
So, what books impressed you this year?
Tagged 2011, bev vincent, book review, brad metzer, brian k vaughn, brian keene, drew goddard, gary a. braunbeck, gary mcmahon, george mann, j f gonzalez, jane espenson, jim butcher, john o'farrell, johnny mains, johnston mcculley, jonathan green, joss whedon, kelli owen, lance parkin, mark west, mark williams, neil gaiman, nick mamatas, paul magrs, ray bradbury, reading list, stephen king, steve martin, steve niles, terry pratchett, thomas emson