A week ago or so, I posted my top five books of the year. Here’s everything else, and for the most part it’s been a good year of reading. I’ve got through fifty books or so, slightly less than last year’s tally. In 2013 I hope to top that, and my reading vows include taking in more short stories and non-fiction, and reading more broadly across different genres.
There are plenty of words to follow, so I’ll shut up now and let you get on with it (if you’re masochist enough – in previous years I’ve found that these reading summaries are mostly ‘enjoyed’ by other authors wanting to know if I said anything nice about them….). If you want to follow what I’m reading through 2013, come and find me on Goodreads, where these mini-reviews all appeared in the first place.
Trading Futures, Lance Parkin – Published in the period when there was no Doctor Who on the tellybox, and featuring the Eighth Doctor as played by Paul McGann, this near-future mash-up of Bond-style shenanigans and Who is… well, fine. Nothing special. A reasonable runaround.There’s an interesting political backdrop, with the USA and Eurozone the superpowers of the day, and some reasonable intrigue about a time machine for sale that may not be all it’s cracked up to be, and it all passes the time in good humour. On the down side, there’s little in the way of real jeopardy for the characters, and while it makes an admirable attempt to blend some Bond nonsense into the usual formula, it doesn’t quite suit the Doctor, to be honest. Of the Parkin novels I’ve read, this is probably the weakest.
Senor 105 and the Elements of Danger, ed. Cody Quijano-Schell – The second title in the inaugural year of the Obverse Quarterly gives the limelight to Senor 105, once a supporting character in the Iris Wildthyme stories, and now demonstrating that he’s more than man enough to support his own title. This collection of stories, edited by the character’s creator, is a madcap, tongue-in-cheek selection that makes great strides in fleshing out the masked wrestler’s world. The stories are great fun – how can you not enjoy a selection in which the opening yarn is about the world’s most powerful moustache? There are some pleasant surprises in the mix too, and particular mention has to go to Niamh Petit’s time twisting ‘There and Back Again’, which takes a sharp turn away from camp hijinks to deliver a genuinely bleak and affecting story. It’s a brave shift in tone within a small collection, and single-handedly highlights the versatility of the character. The book closes with an afterword suggesting that there’s more to come from Senor 105, and on the strength of this collection, I hail that as a good thing.
Ex-Heroes, Peter Clines – I like stories with super heroes in them. I like stories with zombies in them. It goes to follow then, that I liked Ex-Heroes, with its curious blending of the two. I didn’t love it though. The plot is a retread of the familiar ‘base under siege’ played out in countless other stories. The characters, while well delivered, aren’t consistently well conceived, and I’m not convinced they would hold interest outside of this particular mash-up. It’s a fun book, but I’m not rushing to pick up the sequel.
Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’urbervilles, Kim Newman – A series of novellas mirroring the set-up of the Sherlock Holmes stories, in which Colonel Sebastian Moran pens an account of his adventures with consulting criminal Professor James Moriarty. These are a lot of fun, taking references and patterns from the Holmes canon (as well as Newman’s own previous stories), and applying them to the great detective’s nemesis instead. The downside of the collection is that while it’s loaded with good humour and inventive ideas, it never rises above pastiche to deliver something memorably unique. As a Holmes fan, it entertained me, but I was hoping for something more.
House of Silk, Anthony Horowitz – There are lots of ways in which Horowitz absolutely nails this, the new Sherlock Holmes novel. Watson and Holmes, as well as Lestrade and other regulars, are absolutely on the money. They are faithful to the original versions, without being slavish, and where they broach newer ground it’s entirely convincing. The depictions of London are also well done, and while the writing style is a little more modern, it’s a reasonable equivalent to Watson’s familiar first person narrative. The plot is excellent too, but is perhaps the only aspect of the book that it is difficult to imagine Doyle conceiving. The horrors Watson and Holmes uncover towards the end of the story, while genuinely unsettling, are imposed on the pair from a modern perspective, and don’t seem quite to fit amidst the various threats the two have investigated under their creator’s guidance. That said, had Doyle decided to explore such an idea, he may well have done it like this. The book is better than some of the original tales, though falls far short of the best. As Doyle stubbornly refuses to write any new Holmes tales though, this is a great book for those who have already exhausted the original canon, and would love to see something fresh.
Jack’s Magic Beans, Brian Keene – A very short collection of stories that I’ve mostly already read in previous collections from the author. The exception is the novelette that gives the book it’s title. It’s a short tale, unleashing hell and madness among supermarket aisles in a small town. Aside from an entertaining premise, it’s rather empty, and so as the only tale in the book I don’t already own, a disappointing purchase. That said, if you haven’t read the other stories reprinted her, they’re among Keene’s best, and will probably stay with you longer than Jack’s Magic Beans.
Anno Dracula, Kim Newman – A novel that I missed the first time around, and have wanted to read ever since. I wasn’t disappointed. Anno Dracula takes a splendid and simple ‘what if’ (what if Van Helsing, Harker, and others failed to prevent Dracula establishing himself in Britain), and runs with it. As he does so, he introduces characters from his own mythologies, as well as from popular fiction, building a revisionist Victorian Britain that’s a more coherent and believable than the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach Alan Moore takes in his Extraordinary Gentlemen series. The reward is a credible fictional universe that you can lose yourself in with ease. A modern classic.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini – Intended to be of use to anybody working in marketing, this book takes a considered look at the various means by which people are influenced either to favour you and offer you something, or actually change their minds. It’s rooted in several excellent studies, and is among the standard starting points if you’re interested in influence and how it works, for good reason. The book is easy to read, and the research behind each point makes for interesting storytelling. Never mind your career, this is an insightful look at how people work, and why.
59 Seconds, Think A Little, Change A Lot, Richard Wiseman – A book that doesn’t really know what it is. Is it a psychology text, or a self-help book? Therein lies its strength. Where many self-help books are notorious in repackaging science out of context, here the author uses gathers up to date psychological research relating to areas traditionally targeted by the self-help market (happiness, motivation, relationships), and presents them in an easy, jargon-free manner that’s entertaining in its own right. Rather than divorcing his suggestions from their source, he outlines where they come from, and why they might actually work. Exceptionally useful reading, if you’re interested in what makes you tick.
Quirkology: The Curious Science Of Everyday Lives, Richard Wiseman – Interesting enough, if you haven’t read much around the subject of how people work, and the science is passed on in entertaining style. Less targeted that the excellent ’59 Seconds’, which aimed its research squarely at ordinary life and how that research could be made relevant, but a diverting read.
The Infinity Doctors, Lance Parkin – Not a book for the casual reader, this was published to celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the show, at a time when it was off the air. Fans have tried desperately to squeeze this into continuity, but it’s perhaps best thought of as an alternate ‘what if?’ story. The Doctor’s incarnation is deliberately undefined, and to be honest is a poor match for any of the eight candidates that existed at the time it was written, yet he remains the essence of the Doctor, the character distilled, free of the quirks imposed by various actors. Despite being loaded with nods and nudges acknowledging the long history of the series, this makes the book a credible standalone novel, a mystery set on a distant world in chaos. It’s a very strong novel, in that regard.
The Edinburgh Dead, Brian Ruckley – I bought this book in a state of deep unease – the synopsis makes it sound alarmingly similar to my own The Flesh Market. I needn’t have worried. Although it shares some historical personages and is set on the same streets, this action packed historical horror novel is a different beast. It uses Edinburgh to its full potential, winding mysteries through its gloomy streets. Adam Quire is a superbly drawn protagonist, a man desperate to escape the brutalities he became accustomed to during the Napoleonic Wars, but who finds his nature harder to flee than he hoped. As he stalks and is stalked by conspiracies far beyond his situation, the novel builds to a satisfying conclusion, and I wouldn’t at all mind a sequel at some point down the line.
Can’t Swim, Can’t Ride, Can’t Run, Andy Holgate – I suspect I’m the ideal reader for this kind of book – somebody who isn’t fit, but who would like to be fitter. Stories about other people who’ve made that journey, well told and relatable to, are just what I need. In this the book fails. Holgate isn’t really making the journey from ordinary man to ironman. Instead, he’s journeying from lapsed but experienced athlete, to very good athlete indeed. This chain-smoking crisp-munche r struggled to wholly identify. That said, the book’s still a good read during that initial journey, and you can’t help rooting for him. Halfway through the book though, that first ironman is done. The rest becomes a repetitive list of other races of equal or lesser difficulty, and with the ironman story done I got bored before the final page.
A Game Of Thrones, George R.R. Martin – I loved this book when I first read it, over a decade ago, and I still do. It’s rich quasi-historical setting is incredibly convincing and immersive, and not in a way that requires a great leap of faith to buy into. Martin’s decision to play with magic and mysticism as though this is a horror book, and these concepts are both alien and terrifying to the characters when they do manifest, further helps to slowly sell those parts of his story to even the most sceptical readers. The real sell comes towards the end though. For much of the book, the focus is on the Stark family, particularly Lord Eddard Stark, who is possibly the last good man in Westeros. Honourable and trustworthy, disturbed by the corruption he senses around him, it is Ned who is cast as the hero of the piece. That last until the Lannisters cut his head off. It’s a jaw-dropping moment (which recently had just as profound an impact for the TV audience, sure that Sean Bean was the ongoing leading man of the piece), that flips what you’re reading on its head, and sets the true game of thrones in motion. A tremendous start to an extraordinary ongoing tale.
A Clash Of Kings, George R. R. Martin – Where the first book belongs to Ned Stark, this second is owned by Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf lord who rises to the challenge of curbing his psychotic nephew’s worst excesses (said psychotic nephew being King of the realm). Westeros is now at war, with kings lining up to stake a claim to the Iron Throne of the realm, and accordingly this is a war novel, packed with politics and intrigue to break up the battles. It is in watching the charismatic Tyrion discovering, at last, how he can best find a place in the game of thrones at which he excels. As the book builds towards the battle of King’s Landing, he thrives on the chaos and preparation despite himself, and you can’t help rooting for him despite his unfortunate ancestry. As ever with this series though, singling out this strand of the massive plot necessarily does disservice to others, and the way that they weave together to deliver an epic, captivating story.
A Feast For Crows, George R. R. Martin – I confess, I struggled with this book when I first read it. I’d waited a long time for it to be published – years since A Storm of Swords was published – and in the intervening time I’d lost my grip on the plot. All the detail of the massive plot had long since been overwritten by other books, and I struggled through it disconsolately, no longer sure what was going on, and frustrated as a result. This time I read it right after the previous book (the whole marathon undertaken so I wouldn’t have the same trouble with the newly published next book. Guess what? I loved it. It’s not as explosive as Storm, and is clearly the aftermath of that mid-series climax, but as a continuation it’s compelling and engrossing. In the wake of the war of the five kings, Westeros is in ruin, and much of the novel is told at ground level, wandering through the chaos that follows war. It’s stark and grim, but in its own way a harrowing counterpoint to what has gone before. This book, I award to Cersei. With her father and eldest son both dead, she rules unchallenged as queen regent. She considers herself the great schemer, a master political player, and relishes her time to shine. Watching her make error after error, and then watching all of those errors catch up with her, is one of the great joys of this novel.
A Dance With Dragons, George R. R. Martin – A Dance With Dragons is really the other half of A Feast of Crows. Both pick up at the end of book three in this sequence, but follow different characters. For the most part, where the previous book stuck to the centre of Westeros, here we’re on the outskirts. This was almost Dany’s book, as much of the plot focuses either on her struggles to rule the city she has taken or on other characters seeking her. However, although her story is building to a mighty climax, it cuts off on cliffhanger, before the promised strife explodes. As such, I award this book to Reek, Theon Greyjoy as was. We haven’t seen him for two books now, but his death was never confirmed, and disturbing rumours of his torture have since surfaced. It’s all true, and when we next see him it takes a whole chapter to work out who the crippled, tortured, whimpering creature actually is. It’s startling, pitiful, horrifically well realised, and the standout story of the book. And the ending? Jon Snow? Oh christ, do I really have to wait years for the next book?
The Wind Through The Keyhole, Stephen King – A return to Stephen King’s completed Dark Tower saga, which appears to have disappointed many. Set midway through the seven book cycle, this was never going to be a story of revelations about the main characters of that masterpiece. Their story is told. Instead, they appear only as a framing device for two other stories. As they hunker down before a mighty storm, Roland begins to tell a tale of his youth, and his battle against a skin changer. This is where things get interesting, because that isn’t the story either – it’s an entertaining novella, but itself is a framing story for a third, which young Roland tells to a child in his care. This core story, The Wind Through The Keyhole, is a lovely tale of quest and self-discovery, as a young man seeks revenge for his father’s death and hope for his mother’s blindness. I love the structure of this book – the Russian Doll effect of a story within a story within another story. That said, it’s a device with potential that King barely scratches, and therefore it wastes an opportunity to really expand on the world he’s built, and examine it in new ways outside of the central Tower narrative. King’s storytelling gift is evidenced in each story, but he shows little interest in the potential for complexity that his nested structure offered.
Rip It Up, Richard Wiseman – Wiseman continues his work exploring how individuals can apply established Psychological theory in their lives. If you’ve read 59 Seconds, then this book expands on and refines some of the thinking explored in that book. Much of the theory here derives from or is related to the work of psychologist William James, who proposed theories entirely opposite to those of his peer Freud. Where Freud speculated about an inner landscape of subconscious, full of drives you don’t understand that effect your behaviour, James believed the opposite to be true – your personality and emotional interior are a response to your behaviour, not the driver of it. Simply put, your body does stuff, and your mind then interprets how that means you must be feeling. If you want to be happier, smile more. Because you are smiling, you start to feel happier, because that’s what how your mind interprets what you’re doing. Doing it makes it happen. Summed up, it sounds silly, but there’s a century of convincing evidence that this is the case. Of course, the book provides little of the counter-evidence, but it’s a theory that few regular people will be familiar with, and Wiseman walks through it with enjoyable bonhomie.
The Killing Joke, Alan Moore – A classic Batman graphic novel, that has a big effect in my as a teen. Re-reading it is slightly disappointing, and it’s hard to be sure how much of this is because books that this paved the way for have outclassed it. This is a very simple story – the Joker escapes Arkham, maims and tortures people, and then Batman catches up with him. At the time, the brutality of the Joker’s actions – credible and horrifying – combined with a thoughtful (but not as deep as it appeared at the time) look at psychosis made this stand out. It still impresses, and this recoloured presentation of the book is a beautiful thing, but it’s far from Moore’s greatest works.
Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron, Kim Newman – More a continuation of the alternate, vampire-ridden history established in Newman’s ‘Anno Dracula’ than a sequel, this novel moves on thirty years, and plunges the reader into The Great War. With vampires and humans on both sides, there are brand new atrocities to perpetrate, particularly in the skies above No Man’s Land. For all of of the richly sourced vampire mayhem, the war itself is startlingly familiar in how it’s portrayed here, exactly as grimy and bleak as it should be, and Newman avoids the trap of turning the aerial hijinks into a boys own adventure parody. Where characters from the first novel pop up again, it’s great to see them, but the new cast hold their own, and fold themselves into this evolving mythos. The book also contains the novella ‘Vampire Romance’, set shortly after the war and featuring Genevieve Dieudonne (a primary character in these books, missing from ‘Baron’ except via the occasional reference). It’s an amusing shift in tone, setting up a nineteen twenties murder mystery in a country manor, and throwing a bunch of ancient predators in as suspects. Extremely good fun. Vampire novels are usually a hard sell for me, but the Anno Dracula series continues to be utterly refreshing.
El Sombra, Al Ewing – Set within the Pax Brittania steampunk universe, El Sombra is a tricky book to review. Pure pulp nonsense, with a by the numbers plot (lone crusader battles the oppressive regime, saves the girl, and comes out on top) and almost no character development whatsoever, this is nevertheless a thrilling read. As a Zorro fan, I particularly enjoyed the channelling of that character into the titular freedom fighter’s archetype, though in truth there’s a healthy dose of Rambo thrown in to balance things out. Ewing’s writing hurtles from one unlikely but thrilling set piece to the next, and while the prose is superficially straightforward, it’s dotted with neat turns of phrase and effective literary tricks. Particularly diverting is the tactic of briefly visiting the lives of the men El Sombra slaughters, just before the deed is done, which gives the impression of a much larger world than is presented in the main story. I couldn’t help being entertained.
London Macabre, Steven Savile -An extraordinarily rich book, this, in which all hell is unleashed on Victorian London, and only the strangely talented Gentlemen Knights can put themselves between the forces of chaos and the inhabitants of the ancient city. Savile draws on layers and layers of London myth and architecture, from the ancient to the comparatively new, and patches together a metropolis of extraordinary personality on which to unleash the forces of heaven and hell. The writing is dense and luxuriant, and the action – whether physical of spiritual – pounds along as the novel tells a story of London’s darkest night. There is only brief focus on the whys and wherefores behind what is happening, and although there are clear villains, such as the first murderer Cain, events are more chaotic than orchestrated, with the plot being less concerned with masterplans and more with how a handful of heroes tackle the unleashed darkness. If there’s any complaint to be had here, it is that the Gentlemen themselves are introduced in a flurry near the start of the book, and it took a while before they really grew into themselves as individuals. They do, though, especially when Savile begins to separate them and apply unique pressures to each. By the end, I wanted to read more of this strange little club, and though it’s difficult to see how the author could follow the vast, ambitious scenario he grinds them through here, I still hope that this is a mythos that expands in future.
Ghosts of War, George Mann – A second post-steampunk adventure set in the New York of the 1920s, again featuring the vigilante called the Ghost. As last time, this is a straightforward action story, in this case ‘shady cabal have horrifying ambitions and must be stopped’. That’s pretty much what happens, and it’s a brisk, pacy read. There is exactly one plot, and everything that happens feeds it. It helps the novel be what it wants to be – pulp action – but it’s also a little empty. There’s not much mystery to the story, and as little else is happening but the race to defeat the villains, it feels like a snack more than it does a meal. As a quick shot of steampunkish heroics spiced with Lovecraftian horror, it works, but I still prefer the far richer tapestry Mann creates in the Newbury & Hobbes series (set a few decades before the Ghost books).
The Concrete Grove, Gary McMahon – A strange, disorientating read, this. Set on a grim northern estate hiding strange secrets and worlds, the book begins by rooting in a grim reality of loan sharks, violence, and personal struggle. It’s a fine place for a horror novel to set itself, and establishes a different tone from the standard suburban settings that the horror genre became known for a decade ago. It doesn’t take long for the weird to settle in though. The Concrete Grove is just a mask for a different place, older and stranger by far, and its influence soon becomes the plot. If I’ve a disappointment with the book, it’s that the strange takes over rather too quickly, replacing the power of the setting before its full influence is felt. Fortunately, this is the first of a trilogy of stories set in the Grove, so I can look forward to exploring it a little more. The abnormality that emerges is lyrical and disturbing, but I want to get to know the normality it’s invading as well. In many ways, the plot of this novel is more about the Grove than the damaged cast of characters inhabiting it. Their stories are driven by otherworldy influence, their everyday horrors charged up by the mysterious powers at work, and in the end none of their agendas and resolutions root in reality. The journey from one spectrum to the other is where this novel gains its power to disturb. A fine introduction to the Concrete Grove, but not for the faint of heart.
Earthworm Gods II: Deluge, Brian Keene – In Earthworm Gods (also published as The Conquerer Worms), Brian Keene ended the world in a moist glory of floods and ancient beasts. In Deluge, he picks up where he left off. The world is on its last legs as the novel opens, already in terminal decline, and the last remnants of humanity can almost be counted on your hands. Much of the novel details the struggles of those left, trying to survive, coming together, before a last race for hope and salvation. As a novel, it’s recommended only if you read the first book, as here we have a direct continuation . With that said, it’s a lot of fun. Keene revels in this novel post-apocalypse, throwing everything and the kitchen sink at his small cast of characters. Originally written as a thank you to his readers, and published over a couple of years in instalments on his website, it’s consciously fan-pleasing, and not a jumping on point for his work (I’d recommend A Gathering Of Crows for that). If you’ve visited with Keene before though, and particularly if you’ve read the original novel, this is a fun demonstration of what he does best.
Tales of the City, ed. Philip Purser-Hallard – A review to which I add a caveat. I’m not in this book, but 2013 may well raise a question regarding my impartiality when it comes to The City of the Saved. Make of that what you will, but meantime I offer the following thoughts while declaring myself an entirely partial reviewer. The City is a vast, galaxy sized conurbation at the end of time and the universe, in which every human or part-human who ever was or ever will be is resurrected. The storytelling potential is vast, offering a mix of hostorical and fictional characters, technologies, and cultures up like a vast fictional playset. Though grand events have been told in other tomes, this slim collection of tales (part of the Obverse Quarterly – four slim volumes of utterly different speculative fiction per year) is of a more intimate nature. My favourite tale is probably Elizabeth Evershed’s ‘The Socratic Problem’, a lively piece about the primitive Socrates being taken on as a lecturer in a modern philosophy faculty. In contrast, we have ‘About A Girl’, a deeply uncomfortable read about Kurt Cobain (in this story, a bit of a knob) and his relationship with a six week old baby, metally grown to adulthood but trapped in the body she died in. While other stories don’t work as well, and my response to the collection was probably more muted than it might otherwise have been after having just finished the extraordinary Faction Paradox: A Romance in Twelve Parts, this is a deeply imaginative fictional setting and is already producing some inspired pieces of fiction.
Senor 105: The Gulf, Cody Quijano-Schell – Another review to which I must add a caveat. I may not be wholly impartial when reviewing this new series of Senor 105 novellas. Continue at your own risk. When I read the collection Senor 105 and the Elements of Danger at the top of the year, I suggested that any continuation of the titular character in print could only be a good thing. A few months down the road, and a new series of novellas was announced, to be published electronically. The Gulf is the beginning of the series, and it has a lot of work to do. They’re short little books these, and here 105’s creator has to re-introduce the main character and many of the elements from his mythology, set up teasers regarding how the series might progress, and tell a ripping yarn all at the same time. For that reason, it struggles a little with the burden of everything it has to achieve, but on balance does enough with each to satisfy. Most importantly, as the launch of a new series for the character, this is a thumping little adventure throwing the heroic luchador up against the Terrible Kings in a bid to cut them off from a source of nefarious technologies that can only bode well. Short and punchy, this is a promising start to a welcome new line of pulp fiction.
Empire State, Adam Christopher – Oh, I wanted to enjoy this. It looked so much like something I would dig. Noir, Chandleresque detectives, golden age super heroics, alternate realities… I despaired when this turned into my slog of the year. The genres are mashed, but not in a smart or invigorating way. They’re just mashed. Ground up. Paid lip service, before being poorly implemented in a cliche-ridden way that avoids the heart of each, so that everything becomes tokenistic. The plot makes little sense, even though key characters repeat important plot points numerous times within each chapter so you don’t miss them, the alternate reality is boring beyond measure, and the characterisation is hollow. A huge disappointment.
Why Are You Atheists So Angry?, Greta Cristina – For the most part, this book is a big list of adverse impacts religion has had on society and people. There’s a small section midway through that sets out the basic reasons why atheists don’t believe in a god, but for the most part this is about the negative effects of organised religion. It’s an interesting enough quick read for an atheist (I’m one), as though it covers a lot of familiar ground, there are plenty of aspects you won’t have thought about. You’ll very likely end up more angry than you started, but hopefully in a constructive and proactive way. However, I’d recommend this book mostly to people who are religious. We atheists already KNOW why you get angry at us. What I often encounter though, is religious people with no idea why atheists get so worked up about them. Why not live and let live, each to their own, everybody wrapped in their own belief system? Well, this book will put you inside an atheist’s head for a little while, and if you’re able to put yourself in their shoes for even a few moments, you’ll at least understand why so many atheists are unwilling to stay quiet, even if you disagree. It might also give you some ammunition of your own. If you know the sort of things an atheist is thinking, you may be better equipped if you ever find yourself debating with one. Atheists spend a lot more time thinking about this stuff than believers do, which inevitably means they’re usually very well informed. There’s no reason why believers shouldn’t be as well. A snappy read, uncomfortable in places, but in a challenging way.
Stage Whispers, Kealan Patrick Burke – Collecting four novellas which together follow the character of Timmy Quinn, a boy who sees ghosts and is forced to help them find peace. The opening entry, The Turtle Boy, is the best of the lot, introducing Timmy as a child. As ghost stories go, it’s a modern classic. A tale of childhood and innocence into which horrors intrude, the story is unsettling and novel, and the collection never quite reaches its heights again. That’s not to say that what follows isn’t excellent. The Hides and Vessels both rejoin Timmy later in his life, as he goes to increasing lengths to distance himself from the increasingly aggressive and demanding dead and finds that there is no escape. If there’s a frustration in reading the books as a sequence, it’s that it becomes notable how much of the key development is happening between the books rather than during them. The stories were initially released individually, over several years, and the decision to allow major events to happen in the space between would have given weight to the sense of time passing, of catching up with character in each new book. Read as a continuous volume though, it becomes a failing rather than a strength. It’s a minor problem, not with the stories but with the collected format, and Burke makes up for it with his unusual and potent take on ghosts and hauntings.
Finding Ultra, Rich Roll – In which a slightly unhealthy chap becomes an ultra marathon runner. This would be far more interesting if the author didn’t constantly remind you about the obstacles he’s overcome in his life, and constantly try to sell you his own-brand products and lifestyle advice. Smug and sometimes condescending, this becomes interesting only when the author forgets to preach and loses himself in the joy of running. It happens too rarely in the book to recommend.
Save Yourself, Mammal!, Zach Weiner – I wasn’t familiar with the Saturday Morning Breakfast Serial strip before I picked up these books as part of the Humble Bundle earlier this year. I’m glad they were in the pack – they’re geeky, science-led, occasionally obscene, and mix smart thinking with laugh out loud gags. A fine discovery.
The Most Dangerous Game, Zach Weiner – Some longer strips here than the previous ‘Save Yourself, Mammal!’, perhaps leading to less laugh out loud moments and more probing social comment. In general though, still smart, still funny, still ahead of the game when it comes to short form comic strip humour.
Bleeding The Vein, T.G. Arsenault – It’s always refreshing to find something new in horror, especially when you read a lot of it. Arsenault provides that here, by setting part of his story in the Phillipines, and importing an exotic foreign horror back to smalltown USA. There was an immediate frisson created by my lack of familiarity with the myths on display here, that gave the book a real edge throughout. The central character Eddie, an alcoholic down and out who has a longer history with the creature stalking his hometown than anyone imagines, is also well written (although his road to Damascus recovery from his own afflictions seems too sudden and painless when it finally comes). It’s not all plain sailing as a novel, though. I initially found it overwritten in ways that suggested a too-forced grab for literary merit. Somewhere towards the final third of the book, the style and content relax into one another, but until then they were glaringly at odds. A novel I enjoyed though, and I’ll be on the lookout for more of Arsenault’s work.
Senor 105: The Grail, Lawrence Burton – Once again, a series that I’m not wholly unbiased about. Just so you know, before you absorb my opinion as absolute fact (though, of course, they are the same thing to all intents and purposes). With Cody Quijano-Schell having laid the groundwork for this new pulp series in Senor 105: The Gulf, Burton is freed up to play. And play he does – this is a four-colour misadventure in which Senor 105 investigates the improbable heroics of his former colleague El Jefe, all of which occur in the world’s most perpetually invaded village. There’s a lot of good humoured poking at the modern incarnations of Doctor Who on display here, right down to the pervasive and sometimes intrusive musical accompaniment everybody has to suffer, but the wit and hijinks run much more broadly than that. Where The Gulf handled the introductions, The Grail invites you to settle down and get cosy, while it capers for your amusement.
The Luck Factor, Richard Wiseman – A study into luck, and the common factors that make it happen, with suggestions on how you can apply them yourself. There are few surprises in the book, but a lot of good thinking and clear thought that demystifies this ancient positive force, and outlines why it actually works. If such matters interest you, Wiseman is a terrific place to start.
Knots and Crosses, Ian Rankin – I’ve been wanting to get round to Rebus for more than a decade. All the more disappointing then that this opening entry in the series is so pedestrian. For a start, Rebus himself is a stock collage of character defects that have been better used in better books. Choice of music, reliance on booze, dogged persistence… the redeeming feature, of the character rather than the man, is how uninspired a police officer he is at this stage. It was refreshing, to me at least, to encounter so unimpressive a detective. There’s nothing remarkable about John Rebus, save for his past. The SAS training he has undertaken is shrouded in mystery, which of course means it’s central to a plot that fails to unravel and just sort of presents itself at the end. Obvious clues are ignored for the sake of stringing things out to book length, and when a stage hypnotist is brought in to uncover certain suppressed memories, I almost threw the book at the wall. For the most part, the book is clumsy, and a struggle to wade through. I’m glad I tried the next in the series, which is considerably better, but I almost stopped here.
Hide and Seek, Ian Rankin – Now that Rebus is no longer a one-note man with a buried secret, his character opens up considerably. He still suffers from under-development, remaining for the time being a walking check-list of character traits from other books, but it’s starting to become more organic, with signs that the author is beginning to see a difference between his lead and others. Edinburgh is better used here too, as its grubbier outskirts are tentatively explored. Suddenly, the series starts to look interesting. There are still downsides, the plot being the main one. Although it begins in an intriguing fashion, with Rebus the only officer on the force interested in a murder among the city’s dispossessed, the conclusion is a little ludicrous.
Tooth and Nail, Ian Rankin – I picked up the Rebus books mostly because I wanted to enjoy some fiction set in Edinburgh. It’s curious then that it takes removing Rebus from his usual city of operation to give him room to develop, almost as the author gets so distracted by one that he can’t concentrate on the other. Sent to London to consult on a serial killer, a fish out of water with limited authority, Rebus finally shapes up. The plot is over the top, and the author himself concedes that he was influenced by the serial killer fiction coming out of the US at that time, but it’s still a thrilling chase. Rebus’s dogged determination finally comes into its own.
Strip Jack, Ian Rankin – Back in Edinburgh after a sourness in London, with John Rebus finally finding his unique place among the fictional detectives of the shelves, this book finally feels like a ‘Rebus’ book, something with its own shape and form. It’s a shame then that it’s built around a mystery that’s hard to engage with, and has little momentum until the very closing pages.
Surviving The Transition, Kristine Kathryn Rusch – As an author tentatively exploring the merits of Indie publishing I’m a fan of Rusch’s excellent blog, in which she breaks down the new business model in sensible details. That said, this book isn’t really for me – it speaks directly to existing mid-list writers at traditional publishing houses, and talks them through the reasons they might consider publishing themselves, and the pitfalls they might hit if they do. All seems very sensible, though in the end I’m not the target audience.
Wake Up And Smell The Creepy, Marianne Halbert – A splendid surprise, is this collection. Although it’s marketed loosely as horror, it comes as no surprise to learn from her biography that Halbert has stronger links to mystery and crime fiction. For the most part, that’s what this collection is – a series of whodunits given fresh life using the trappings of the horror genre. It’s a delight too, with each polished tale punching above its weight on matters of plot and emotional wallop. I often struggle with collections and anthologies, but the variety here kept me engaged throughout.
The Newbury & Hobbes Annual 2013, George Mann – A seasonal offering from Obverse books, collecting some new and old tales about Mann’s steam punk investigative duo. I read this on a plane to Thailand in the run up to Xmas, and particularly enjoyed the chance to bring some snow and Victoriana to my holiday. As well as fiction, there are crossword puzzles, cut and and keep stand up pictures, and more – captured the Xmas annuals of my youth splendidly. Much of the fiction is reprinted, though there’s some new stuff propping it up, but this is perfect Xmas fun.
The Last Days Of Richard III, John Ashdown-Hill – A book I picked up for research purposes, and abandoned after a couple of days. I suspect this would be a far more interesting book for those who are already familiar with the period, politics, and history of Richard III, but it’s far too unforgiving on the reader who doesn’t have that background. That’s not to criticise it in any way, as it is a book with a qualified intended audience, and I may come back to it when I’ve found some better introductory texts.
ReDeus: Divine Tales, ed. Aaron Rosenberg, Robert Greenberger – In 2012, the old gods returned. All of them. The Olympians, the Celtic, the Norse, The Native American and Mexican… this anthology of stories is set against the background of a world redefined by the return of the ancient powers, and their demand to be worshipped. The book reminds me most of the Wild Cards anthologies, but without a framing story. Each tale introduces different characters and scenarios against the backdrop, and adds new layers to an altered world. I enjoyed the smaller stories the most, little moments in little lives redefined by the return of the gods, while bigger tales of extraordinary events left me a little disinterested, but overall the standard of the stories is consistently high. My only complaint is that several of the most interesting seem to be the start of something that doesn’t conclude here – character introductions and origins that set up possibilities to be explored later, but which are never returned to. It could be that a further volume will revisit them, but it’s annoying that some of these potentially intriguing tales offer little by way of an interim conclusion, and so leave the anthology on its own feeling incomplete.
Medi Evil 1, Paul Finch – One of the strongest and most consistent UK horror writers, Finch also has a penchant for the historical. In these three unconnected novellas he gives us takes of Vikings, Elizabethan spycatchers, and an outmatched unit of Romans attempting to civilise the UK. In each, he manages the difficult trick of immediately immersing you in a detailed and crisply realised era without throwing his research in your face. The credible settings allow the otherness of the horrors he pits his characters against to properly chill, subverting the natural order as all good horror stories must. In these tales, those characters are tough and capable, able to pit wits and brawn against the things in the darkness, and the struggles are rich and compelling. A very fine way to finish of 2012’s reading.
Currently reading (novel): The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling
Currently reading (non-fiction): Richard III and the Murder In the Tower, Peter A. Hancock
Currently reading (short stories): Medi Evil 2, Paul Finch
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