As promised yesterday, these are the books I read for pleasure in 2014. Usually I would warn you to get a flask of coffee before diving into the list, but this year you don’t have to worry. There’s only sixteen of them. I’ve already covered the best three from the year, and this is what’s left over. A fair number of good reads, to be fair. I may not have read much, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve got to.
These reviews were all written shortly after I finished each book. I tend to throw them up on Goodreads as I go through the year, so come and find me there if you want to keep an eye on what I’m reading in 2015.
Jonny Alucard, Kim Newman – Okay. Right. Deep breath. That was disappointing. I haven’t been disappointed by an Anno Dracula book before. Damn. The novel follows the new character of Jonny Alucard, a son of Dracula who becomes a vast force in the modern world. It’s an episodic affair, and several of those episodes are previously published novellas linked by a new framing narrative. No problem with that, except that it makes the book ridiculously bitty – more a collection than a novel. There’s plenty of cultural cross-referencing, from Francis Ford Coppola, Andy Warhol, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Colombo, Blade, Orson Welles, and much, much more, but it often feels distracting rather than purposeful. It could all have worked it it went somewhere, but the ending is a complete anti-climax. It’s all very well to set up the next novel, but here the author doesn’t trouble to properly finish the current one. It’s one long tease, with no resolution. The parts are often good in this book, but the sum is awful.
Gotrek and Felix: The Anthology, ed. Christian Dunn – Short stories following doomed Slayer Gotrek Gurnisson’s perilous adventures as he seeks a worthy doom, accompanied by the reluctant poet Felix Jaeger who once drunkenly swore to record the dwarf’s end in an epic poem. The anthology includes the best and worst of their stories. Gotrek suffers from a ‘Hulk Smash’ problem as a character. He seeks out the most dangerous things he can, and fights them to the death. He’s very single-minded about it, and his obsession leaves little else of interest to explore in the character. It’s Felix who brings shade and story to what would otherwise be a series of scraps with little to recommend them. The best tales here remember this, including Nathan Long’s two excellent entries and Richard Salter’s romping final story. Many of the others replace Felix’s point of view with other characters, and only John Brunner’s journey into a cult gone wrong succeeded in holding my interest. A mixed bag, then. Some excellent adventuring, held back by some unsuccessful experimenting with what makes these characters work.
The Playmaker, Thomas Keneally – Timberlake Wertenbaker’s ‘Our Country’s Good’ is among my favourite plays, and as this is the book on which it’s based I came to it with high expectations. Some were met, while others were not. The depiction of Australia as a foreign world is beautiful, and makes a fine backdrop to the story of Lieutenant Ralph Clark rallying a bunch of prisoners to rehearse and perform a play for the King’s birthday. If anything however, it’s slightly underused. With Ralph as the point of view character, the world in which the convicts live remains a distant thing that can only be understood second hand, and for me the story suffers within this limitation. Clark’s dilemmas, including his infatuation with one of the convicts he directs, are for the most part only mildly dramatic, and his inactions were a source of deep frustration as I read along with them. The drama lifts somewhat in the presence of the secondary cast, particularly as the back stories that brought them to Australia unfold, but the novel has little of the thematic precision demonstrated by the play it spawned. By no means a bad book – it’s beautifully written, and captures an uneasy time and setting very well – it nevertheless failed to excite me in quite the way I’d hoped.
Survival of the Fittest: The Anatomy of Peak Performance, Mike Stroud – This is an odd sort of book, with on the face of it a quite narrow audience. To properly enjoy it you have to be a) the sort of person who enjoys tales of human endurance, and b) interested in the detail of evolutionary biology and sports physiology. If you DO tick both of those boxes, then this is definitely for you. The author tells tales of his own endurance adventures, including ultra marathons in the Sahara and treks to the Poles, and uses the extreme impacts they had on the bodies of he and his companions to illustrate the theories of evolutionary adaptation that make up the other third of the book. Stroud tells excellent stories, and his own adventures are colourful and vivid. While a little one-sided in places, the science of what kind of animal the human being is and why is also very clearly mapped. While there are small details here and there that are debatable, Stroud is balanced enough to point most of these out as he goes, and at least references the counterpoints even if he doesn’t delve into them in the same detail as the perspectives he himself is most interested in. Overall, the book stands well as a fascinating and demonstrated narrative of what the human body is for, and why it so often goes wrong in the modern age.
Northern Soul, Steven Savile & Steve Lockley – A fast and gritty thriller in which ex-soldier Jack Stone takes on a missing persons case in his home town of Newcastle. The emphasis is on action and plot over character and development, which makes it a little different from other books by both authors that I’ve enjoyed. I also missed their deftness with fantasy here, but there’s no denying that this is an efficient little book that gets on with its job of delivering hard action and some neat twists. For the most part the plot unfolds at street level, and stays distinct from prominent American entries in the genre by retaining a Guy Ritchie Britishness and pace. This is the Newcastle of Get Carter moved on a few decades and given a shot of adrenaline, and it’s pleasingly brutal without selling the city short.
The Reach of Children, Tim Lebbon – An unsettling novella that dwells on the grief of a young boy who suffers through the lingering death of his mother, and then watches his father fall apart in the aftermath. The story is lightweight, centred on a mysterious box under the father’s bed from which a sleepy voice can be heard, and events uncurl with a slow unease that’s very infectious. The ending, which I can’t say much about without affecting the reading of the bulk of the story, came as a disappointment after the build. It felt neat, and for me failed to address many of the ideas and themes raised along the way. With that said, this book isn’t really confined by its plot. It’s the portrait of loss that makes it compelling, and Lebbon makes for a compassionate and slightly sinister guide through the complex and often contradictory emotions surrounding this.
Skin Game, Jim Butcher – Harry Dresden and I almost had a parting of the ways after the previous book. After following his adventures in one massive binge, book after book, I was sure the law of diminishing returns had firmly kicked in. My ennui for the series wasn’t aided by the fact that the author had effectively dropped a bomb into Harry’s world, blowing all the familiar elements of his life to the winds in an explosive cataclysm. Without those elements, I felt, the books lost too much of their heart. This series isn’t just about a character, but a fantastical community that had been irreparably damaged.
Part of the joy of Skin Game is watching that community reform around Harry in new ways, familiar faces making their own adjustments to the upheaval, and suddenly it all makes sense again. Jim Butcher hasn’t swept the board clean at all. Instead he’s given himself breathing space from the structures he had been forced to revisit continually, and is now building something new. Dresden’s world has evolved.
As you can probably sense, I enjoyed this book a great deal. Harry’s dry angst is still present, but the heist structure of the plot allows for more fun than I’ve had with the series for a while. It’s not a pure reboot – Harry back-references his own adventures constantly, and several have a definite impact on this story, so this isn’t a book for new readers – but it’s a definite new lease of life for Dresden. I’m suddenly looking forward to the next book a great deal.
Mr Mercedes, Stephen King – There was, for me, an awful lot wrong with this book. The characters don’t entirely convince, and fall far short of King’s best developed protagonists. The villain’s plans and actions don’t appear particularly credible (and neither does the fact that everybody falls for them, especially when it comes to the denouement). The climax is anti-climactic. As thrillers go, it’s not very thrilling.
And yet… and yet… I’m increasingly convinced that Stephen King has actual magic powers. None of these problems stopped me from bouncing through the book and enjoying it a great deal. When King begins a story, he holds you to the end. While this story doesn’t stand up well in the crime or thriller genre, and doesn’t have the depth to extend much beyond its plot, it still thoroughly entertains. It’s mediocre yet still, somehow, I liked it. Weird.
Behind Closed Doors, J.J. Marsh – When a series of unethical business types appear to commit suicide, the presence of a second male’s DNA at each crime scene leads the powers that be to suspect all is not as it seems. A multi-agency investigative team is set up in Zurich, led by Beatrice Stubbs on loan from Scotland Yard, to dig further. And dig they do – for once, there are no maverick detectives running around the streets in this novel. Actual, methodical police work happens. It’s a hypnotic sort of approach to the mystery that’s made interesting by the sometimes clashing personalities on the team. There’s a Colombo-esque format at play here too. The novel doesn’t pretend to be a whodunnit for very long, presenting so few potential suspects that you quickly realise who is behind the killings. Instead, the novel revolves around why they did it and how they’ll be caught. My only gripe, a small one, is that a great deal of Stubbs’s background is only mentioned or alluded to. It’s an intriguing set of markers that will clearly be expanded on in further novels, but I would have enjoyed a little more up front. Despite that, I found Marsh’s debut to be a smart, surprising, and refreshing European vacation, and will very likely be back for more.
An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth, Chris Hadfield – Like most people I became aware of the author during his most recent stint aboard the International Space Station as its commander. It’s been a long time since anybody has made space exploration as relevant and fascinating as Hadfield has, and it was for more of the same that I checked out his book. That component is definitely there, and as compelling as you’d expect, but what I hadn’t cottoned on to was that this is also something of a how-to manual. Not how to be an astronaut so much as how to make the most of the opportunities and wants that are specific to your own life. It’s not preachy, but it’s enthusiastic. Hadfield talks about the many hurdles he had to cross in order to get where he did in an autobiographical way, but the detail on the qualities and attitudes he believes to have assisted him and others in his trade makes this a little more than just that. Such a book runs the risk of being preachy, but Hadfield is engaging throughout and his perspective is both practical and relatable. There’s nothing New Age about his understanding of what makes success possible, and a lot of his observations are striking in how they differ from what else you might find on the shelf (several, including his insistence that it’s sometimes best to ‘be a zero’ instead of excelling from the start, will stick with me). Overall, a pleasant surprise.
The Enemy, Charlie Higson – The basic outline of this YA novel is standard zombie fare – in the aftermath of an apocalypse, survivors must battle zombies and each other against a brutal landscape in order to reshape what’s left of the world and make themselves a place in it (etc, etc). The backdrop is London instead of the U.S., and in tone this is a pretty good contender for the UK companion to The Walking Dead. There are some tweaks here and there – instead of being actual corpses the zombies are adults infected by a plague that only affects post-teenagers, and the characters are mostly teens and pre-teens – but there are rival camps, quests, relationships, brutal and unforeseen deaths… if Rick Grimes were to stride into the mix he’d find himself perfectly at home. That this is YA fiction makes little difference to Charlie Higson, who cuts away from unpleasantness only at its most extreme, and gives an enlivening examination of survivalism through the lens of his young cast (while keeping things ever moving forwards at pace). I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this. Whether the same momentum can be maintained through a series, and for how long such familiar ideas can be propped up by Higson’s energy, I don’t know. There’s enough done here to make me put the next book on my Xmas list though.
Revival, Stephen King – There’s a great deal to admire in this new King novel, which follows one man’s life from childhood to his later years (though hardly his old age). The narrator who becomes drawn into a web of addiction and obsession is a staple of horror fiction, and it’s one that King plays with expertly, drawing a strange mix of sympathy and dismay from the reader. That said, Revival is a lot of book for a slim story. The crux of the tale – what lengths grief can drive a good man to – is compacted into the final quarter of the book, and King takes a meandering path to get there. It’s a pleasing path, with plenty to keep you occupied as you travel it, but it steals the story’s momentum, and while the ending is sharply delivered when it finally arrives I felt disappointed that I’d travelled so far for so little. King’s character work is, if anything, better than it’s ever been here, but feels wasted on what could have been more powerfully delivered at a fraction of the length.
And that was all. I’m still incredibly grumpy about that.
Tagged 2014, absolute sandman, an astronaut's guide to life on earth, behind closed doors, charlie higson, chris hadfield, christian dunn, gotrek & felix, jim butcher, jj marsh, jonny alucard, kim newman, mark hodder, markus zusak, mayhem, mike stroud, mr mercedes, neil gaiman, northern soul, reading list, revival, sarah pinborough, skin game, stephen king, steve lockley, steven savile, survival of the fittest, the book thief, the enemy, the playmaker, the reach of children, the silent thunder caper, thomas keneally, tim lebbon