Richard Wright

author of strange, dark fictions

Journal

Reading List 2016

A few days ago I gave you a list of the top five books I read in 2016. Here’s a list of everything else (I read 30 books this year), with the reviews I wrote at the time (they appeared on Goodreads and Amazon, mostly). There are a few books that really pleased me in this lot. Also some which left me cold (I’m looking at you, Clive Barker). Scan through and see if anything catches your eye.

And welcome, fellow authors. I know well that posts like this are only really read by authors, most of whom are trying to find mention of their own books. Nothing wrong with that. 2016 has been a strange year, and a little reassurance goes a long way.

Nice authors. Shhh. Settle down. Everything will be just fine.


Knight of the Seven KingdomsGeorge R.R. Martin – One of my top five books this year.

Black Bubbles, Kelli Owen – This is a perfectly entitled volume of stories, beautifully produced in hardback by Thunderstorm Books. Each tale within is a fragile, slightly hypnotic thing that’s compelling while it’s floating in front of you, but quickly forgotten when it’s gone. There’s little depth, and if you poke the structure of each story too hard in search for something beneath the glistening surface then you’re going to be left with nothing at all. Owen constructs these stories like a fast-talking comedian rattling off tidy jokes, setting them up, nailing a punchline, and moving on. A diverting, palate-cleansing sort of read.

Adventures in the Anthropocene, Gaia Vince – A fascinating travelogue exploring how communities across the world are adapting to face the changed world we as a species have created. The emphasis on social and technological evolution as a response to the rapidly changing planet we live on (instead of denial and the quest for some sort of environmental reset button) is refreshing and optimistic, and not a mindset I’d stumbled on before. If the book has a flaw it is in its repetition – the decision to break the book up by different ecosystems eventually (it’s a big old book) ends up repositioning very similar discussions in only cosmetically different ways the further into the author’s journey you travel, where perhaps looking at the technologies as themes would have been cleaner. That doesn’t detract from the book’s achievement in embracing what we’ve left ourselves with and highlighting a different and very human way of thinking about how our species might take a more sustainable ownership of our planet going forward.

Schindler’s Ark, Thomas Keneally – Not a story which I need to recap in the broad strokes thanks to Mr Spielberg, but well worth picking up even if you think you’re familiar with it. The novel stands without the sentimentality of the movie, and in the detail highlights in some ways the absolute mundanity of it, from the exploitable corruption of the Nazi’s to the very capitalist nature of Schindler’s own achievements in salvation. Far more affably narrated by Keneally than you might imagine, there is little apparent effort made here to lionise the titular protagonist or turn the Nazi officers into automatic beasts. The history is ordered, presented, and allowed to stand. A remarkable book about a man who achieved little before the war, almost nothing after it, but who was enabled in a few short years to save over a thousand lives. For all of the failings on display, it’s impossible not to be moved by the closing chapters.

The Scarlet Gospels, Clive Barker – The Scarlet Gospels is a book I opened with genuine dread. Having watched friend after friend slate this offering from an author who was once among literary horror’s most innovative voices, I genuinely didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

And at first things were fine. The first third of the book, while hardly the sort of imaginative tour-de-force Barker was producing twenty years ago, was a lot of fun. The sort of shallow dark fantasy that dozens of good authors regularly produce, yes, but hardly a disaster. No real depth, cardboard archetypes instead of proper characterisation, but a reasonable amount of fun. Pinhead might be less interesting than ever when forced to be a character with actual motivations, and Harry D’Amour might now be a two-dimensional knock-off of the hard-boiled modern fantasy types that he inspired, but nobody gets hurt and the pages fly by. Fine, I thought, it’s one of those books that’s failed  to live up to the mad fantasies of readers who have been longing for it for twenty years, but it’s not actually that bad.

And then the book descends, literally and figuratively, into H/hell. For the Barker of old this would have been opportunity to sculpt a landscape that nobody had ever seen before, and nobody would ever forget. That’s not what we get today. Today we get some buildings and stuff, that look like the kind of buildings and stuff you’ve seen already. Characters walk past them, quite a lot, having a long stroll instead of having a story, and dear god it’s boring. At the end of the walk there’s a fight. Then the book stops, and a million horror connoisseurs weep uncontrollably, and go in search of sugar and carbs to artificially raise their spirits, and THIS IS HOW OBESITY HAPPENS CLIVE BARKER, THE BIGGEST KILLER IN THE WESTERN WORLD, AND WHY DO YOU WANT TO MAKE US HATE OURSELVES LIKE THIS?

I did not like this book. It is not a good book. Maybe skip this book and read a different book instead.

WoolHugh Howey – For the initial part of the book, when it’s is a dystopian conspiracy thriller, Wool is the deeply intriguing story of a civilisation sheltering from the end of days in an enormous manmade shelter. For the most part they have no idea how they got there, or even if there was ever anywhere else. Their history is the silo, and has been for generations gone. Except there is a deeper truth, and it’s being held back from them.

It’s this truth which functions as the engine of the plot, and while it ticks over there’s a real drive to the story which offsets the basic monotony of the setting. When the mists clear and the truth stands revealed – interesting though the fresh premise is – the book feels like it has nowhere else to turn, and that all it’s best bits are backstory. There’s a lot of walking up and down stairs in various stages of exhaustion, and some action to mask the fading intrigue, but it never reverts to its initial ingenuity and by the final chapters I was losing interest. An great setup, and there’s some smart and fluid writing on display, but for me it never quite delivered on its early promise.

The View From The Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman – Neil Gaiman at his best (and this collection of blogs, forewords, and speeches can reasonably be seen as that) is one of the most compelling essayists of the current age. Whether you have an innate interest in what he’s talking about or not, he makes you want to listen. Part of this is his gentle wit, and another is his keen empathy with others. He knows how people wants to hear things.

The most compelling of the pieces here, for me, look either sideways or straight on at art, and what it is, and why it is, and how to do it. Other essays include appreciations of authors I either know and love a little bit more through Gaiman’s observations, or am now eager to track down and sample for myself. As a collection of essays, this is not the sort of book you’re likely to pick up as an introduction to Neil Gaiman, but if the two of you have met before then consider this an opportunity for a cosy and illuminating reunion.

BoneshakerCherie Priest – There’s a lot going on in this American steampunk adventure, but also not much at all. A boy gets lost in a terrible place looking for the truth about his dead father, and his mother has to follow to save him. There are ruined cities, catacombs, zeppelins, anachronistic weaponry, zombies, masked overlords, and more. For all of that, the story doesn’t really do very much with any of them, save wheel the main characters (and a ragged supporting cast) past them for the occasional look, and for what is supposed to be a rollicking adventure it takes its time doing so. The characters aren’t quite complex enough, and the elements that the author includes aren’t quite novel enough to ever surprise, but they do fuse well. The backdrop is solid, the action when it comes is well paced, and I enjoyed a look at steampunk adventuring US-style. It’s not without its problems, but this is a diverting enough book if you’re okay with its very straightforward plotting.

The City of Mirrors, Justin Cronin – One of my top five books this year.

The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled JackMark Hodder – Steampunk is a thing I want to enjoy more than I usually do. The problem is one of repetition. The iconography of the genre is often too invasive, particularly when stories are set in Victorian London. There will be a gentleman adventurer, probably. A well travelled one with an array of frankly unlikely skills picked up while gallivanting (a word which will almost certainly feature in the text) around the globe. The adventurer will be an agent of the Crown, have a quirky sidekick, and if he doesn’t have a sword cane at the start of the story then he will almost certainly have acquired one by the end. Elaborate fictional mechanisms will appear in the narrative, and be described in far more fetishistic detail than anybody cares about. There will be a conspiracy somewhere down the line. Babbage engines will be mentioned at least in passing, and have a 50/50 chance of being a key plot point. The storytelling will be arch and witty (because aren’t we all having a jolly wheeze, winkwhat-ho), and the heightened reality and unlikely prowess of the heroes will combine to prevent any true investment in the stakes of the tale.

And there’s nothing wrong with any of that as long as everybody’s having fun, save that when you’ve read one good telling there’s little point returning to the genre.

Hodder’s Strange Affair of Springheeled Jack features all of the above, and the tropes are paraded with distinctive flair. Fortunately, there’s also a healthy press of additional themes and ideas floating in the background to distract you from them and freshen the narrative up a little. The author thankfully remembers that the era which he is twisting was replete with philosophies, countercultural movements, and theological debates. He finds those most fitted to his tale, redevelops them to fit his altered timelines, and creates a more vibrant society for it. Elsewhere he mixes eugenics into the otherwise standard brew of technological innovation common in this type of story, and while the results are often too comically excessive to swallow they at least entertain. What really makes a difference to the story is that it includes, through the titular character, an actual reason – bound up with the main character and the plot – for why the world has taken such a sharp turn from the history we’re familiar with. Suddenly ‘steampunk’ isn’t just a lazy and familiar backdrop, but an actual aberration which requires addressing full on. There’s a freshness to that idea that pulled me through the bits that were too achingly familiar, and made me hope that the next books in the trilogy (this is the first of two trilogies, actually) might continue to subvert and reframe tired ideas and deliver something different.

I had fun, basically. I’m off to start the next book now, with fingers crossed that it moves past its devices towards something new. Despite the odds against it, which were quite staggering, this novel grabbed my attention and held it – and on this occasion I consider that an impressive feat.

NOS4R2, Joe Hill One of my top five books this year.

The MartianAndy Weir – The pleasure of The Martian is not so much the question of survival – the fact that much of the book is a first person narrative leaves little room for suspense there – but in the spirit and ambition behind getting the job done. Much of the book’s success lies in the likability of stranded astronaut Mark Watney. He’s straightforward, unpretentious, and has just the sort of resilient spirit one requires to be the main character in an isolated race against time and the Universe (if you need that story to be something other than relentlessly grim).

The science – and there is a lot of accurate and detailed science – behind his numerous solutions is sort of hypnotic. There’s way too much detail, and it can go on for pages, but at the same time it’s sort of pleasingly poetic. The wit is unsubtle, a sort of gung-ho optimism that has almost no depth but is so transparent I couldn’t help but buy into it. There’s not much thrill in this thriller, for the result is a foregone conclusion, and the science is such that any attempt to play along at home and work out how he’s going to get out of any given problem is futile unless you’re also an astronaut level engineer.

The book is also a structural mess, jumping from different narrative viewpoints (first person, third person, narrative third person) as the author requires, with little understanding of how such devices can interplay. Somehow though, the clumsy execution of the story enhances its authenticity, working in its favour. The Martian sucks you in despite the things that are so clearly wrong with it, and the ending made me want to give a little cheer. If you’re prepared to be a forgiving reader, then there’s a lot to like here.

The Curious Case of the Clockwork ManMark Hodder – Bismillah! I was hoping this series would grow into itself, and it certainly has. Book two, and I’m hooked. Another plot which on the surface includes temporal manipulation, this time throwing a sort of weaponised spiritualism and class warfare into the mix along with the mandatory grave threats to His Majesty’s Empire. With the altered Steampunk world of yesteryear established in the first volume, the author allows the cast of secondary characters to step up throughout the novel (sidelining the famous explorer Richard Burton for a time), and has enormous fun with them in the process (Inspector Honesty of the Yard naming garden shrubs as he lays waste to uncanny opponents particularly tickled me). There are also some Grand Guignol flourishes that I particularly appreciated.

Hodder has done something quite remarkable here. Having stitched together an exceptionally unlikely, often utterly absurd, Victorian landscape in the previous book, here he allows it to take gusty breaths of its own. To my surprise the result is self-sustaining and capable of supporting pleasingly complex ideas. While the central thrust of this book is straightforward, it’s a thematically layered thing, ruminating on destiny, class, hypocrisy, and much more as it rattles along. Despite scenarios and set-pieces which verge on the Pythonesque the characters never wink, and the fact that they take the upturning of their fortunes so seriously allowed me to as well. By turns bright and dark, comic and po-faced, this unlikely fusion of influences is a rollicking, bravura performance. Roll on volume three…

The DoorMargaret Atwood – A mostly graceful, tactile collection of poetry that succeeds most often where it invites you to match your own interior landscape with visceral images and themes, and occasionally fails (particularly in the lengthier pieces that close the book) where it prescribes too much and reduces your freedom to relate.

Expedition to the Mountains of the MoonMark Hodder – Well, that was exceptional. Hotter takes the ideas he’s messed around with in previous books – time travel and cause & effect, parallel timelines, alternate history – and wraps them into a vast, trilogy-ending quest story across Africa. Actually two different quest stories, in two different alternate histories, featuring the same character – Sir Richard Francis Burton. Free of the sometimes wildly outrageous steampunk London he has created in previous books, the harsh reality of Africa in the Nineteenth century makes for an increasingly grim travelogue, particularly as much loved characters fall by the wayside, and the bloody atrocities of the Great War (as reimagined in one particular timeline) doesn’t add much light relief. By the end it is clear that Sir Richard’s story has ever been a tragic one.

I can quite see why the book has mixed reviews from readers. It’s a sprawling, complex, occasionally exhausting thing, quite different in tone from previous volumes while nevertheless relying on them entirely for context. The series began as a steampunk fantasy enriched with a little science fiction and philosophy. By this point it has become science fiction wearing an outfit made of historical fantasy, examining the modern era with accusing eyes and finding much of who we have become wanting. It’s ambition is ridiculous, and I was sucked in entirely. Particular credit must go to narrator Gerard Doyle, who has brought these books to life for me with his exceptional performances, finding a marvellous line between occasional camp and real emotional and dramatic heft.

This novel ends the trilogy in the grimmest place, but leads into a second. I shall follow, though I have no idea how Hodder is going to navigate himself into a new story from the catastrophe he closes with here. I’m sure it’s going to be ingenious though. Bring it on.

The HuntTim Lebbon – A lean thriller that hits the ground (ahem) running, and (ahem) races through its premise at blistering speed. Chris is a family man, who happens also to be an ultramarathon runner. When his family is kidnapped, he is made the prize in a manhunt over the Welsh mountains, hunted by rich clients and knowing that if he escapes then his family will be executed. If the book has a flaw it is only that the main character is (credibly) too skilled. With his wealth of experience the hunters never really have a chance, particularly when Rose – a previous survivor of the Hunt who is hell-bent on revenge against her tormentors – is brought into play. The thrill in the thriller lies with his family, and the race to get to them before they are wiped out. The plot is functional, and ends before the concept is exhausted, but what lifts it is the characterisation and attention to detail. Whatever genre he approaches, Lebbon always manages to make his characters breathe, and in a straightforward race against time such as this that’s the difference between a forgettable yarn and a memorable high concept thriller.

A History of ScotlandNeil Oliver – A deeply readable account of Scotland’s entire history as a nation, that sews different epochs together and left me far clearer on how the landmark moments I knew about fitted into the country’s development as a whole. As is often the case the focus for much of the book is on kings and queens and religion, where perhaps a little more ground level social history would have been welcome, but it’s at that level that the nation was shaped for hundreds of years so it’s churlish to complain. Oliver is an engaging storyteller, who sees Scotland’s flaws as clearly as its triumphs, making this a well-rounded and accessible tale of how a country was made.

The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi – Mark Hodder – At the end of the previous trilogy it looked as though there was nowhere left to go in this series of books. All of the major players were accounted for, most in entirely final ways, and Sir Richard Francis Burton had himself become the ultimate architect of all of the woes that had befallen them. It was a bleak place. At first, as this novel opens, I thought Hodder had pulled a daring cheat, simply rebooting his universe and starting all over again. It’s more dizzying than that however, for the very fact that the universe is rebooted becomes a critical plot point, linking a new reality to the old one. Familiar faces meet again for the very first time, and there are added levels of tension around those meetings, donated wholly by the context of what went before but no longer happened. Except it did.

That’s parallel universes for you.

If it sounds headache inducing, then I’m misrepresenting. At the forefront of the plot is a take on Dracula that you haven’t seen before, and it offers a fast-paced, sometimes grim, often comic narrative to keep things rolling along. Beneath the surface though, these books have become immense. Context provided by things which did not ever happen, as well as things which did, play with the readers expectations as familiar themes and characters are reintroduced – sometimes subverting them, sometimes rewarding them. It’s a tremendous storytelling feat that could only have been accomplished over the course of a series which isn’t frightened to burn its bridges, and never forgets where the bodies lie.

The Return of the Discontinued ManMark Hodder – Where the previous novel revelled in its rebooting of an already fictional history, here Hodder pushes the narrative space in almost all possible directions at once. From Burton’s early leaps through parallel realities in which different choices made him different men, to the gloriously complex future history he later leads an expedition into in search of the source of Time’s contamination, the story plays continually with its own fictional status. That it remains a ripping adventure at the same time as it continually rewrites its own rules (by making those rewrites a plot-point against which the protagonists can strive) is a little bit dizzying. You can also hear the author cackling madly as he wonders whether he’s going to get away with it.

He does. This is extraordinary work, pushing the limitations of a tired sub-genre clear away and creating something unique. Even if the previous volumes were less than superb (they aren’t), it would still be worth reading them just to reach this point in the sequence. It’s utterly wonderful.

Rivers of Blood, Ben Aaronovitch – It’s an odd book, this one. Derivative of a great deal of US urban fantasy (the Dresden Files in particular), but with enough local colour to get away with it. It’s eminently readable while in progress, but easy to put down and forget about it until the next time. It occupied no space in my head except when I was reading, at which point it pulled me along nicely. Aaronovitch does a nice line in first person narrator, and while his London never feels real (despite an impressive attention to detail), it is at least colourful. I’ll pick up the next in the series more because this was an easy and enjoyable way to pass time than because I’m compelled to return to the characters, and because a series like this sometimes needs a book to setup its premise and find its feet.

The Rise of the Automated Aristocrats, Mark HodderOne of my top five books this year.

The Severed Streets, Paul Cornell – I remember enjoying the first in the Shadow Police series, but not being entirely convinced by its worldbuilding. This book functions as a payoff to that. With the core unit now in place and aware of the mystical background they operate against, Cornell delves deeper into the nooks and crannies of London. Thematically it’s very on the nose, fictionalising very recent real-world events and commenting directly on the undercurrents they leave behind (media phone hacking in one corner, anarchist riots in the other), but this adds an urgency to the story that pulls you in fast (especially, I suspect, if you live in the UK). The team’s function as a real-world Met police unit, with all of the bureaucracy and paperwork that brings (discussion of appropriate RIPA authorisations to stake out a supernatural premises amused me), is surprisingly effective in grounding the otherwise fantastical action. Cornell goes perhaps a little too far by giving fellow author Neil Gaiman a significant role in the ploy – pushing too hard at the place where suspension of disbelief turns to shattering – but for the most part this is a grounded and sophisticated, if slightly meta, piece of modern horror-fantasy.

Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? , Paul Cornell – The continuing adventures of the Shadow Police, a small team of Met officers tasked with law enforcement in a London piled to the gritty shadows with errant magic. The book starts off jarring a little, for although certain characters are dealing with the implications and aftershocks of the previous book it all seems a little abrupt. Quill in particular ended The Severed Streets in good form, so his descent into depression and possible madness here seems a little rootless. That said, once the leap is made, the overarching story is well served by the developments rolled out here.

Once again, the book loses points for trying to meld gritty urban policing with some meta-commentary (this time focussed around the sprawling entertainment industry that has grown up around various versions of Sherlock Holmes). The commentary intrudes too overtly into the narrative in places, reminding you too often of the author at the expense of the world he has created, but this is book 3 and those of us still here have decided to swallow this imbalance in order to explore the weird corners of the city Cornell has created. The plot is less satisfying than before, if only because the scale is smaller, but it pulls some neat tricks and ultimately entertains.

Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch – This series isn’t working for me. The narrator’s wit, in its incessant constancy, is starting to wear incredibly thin, and while it keeps the narrative light I want something with more weight. I’m sure it wasn’t helped by my reading Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police books at the same time as this, which have a similar premise but a more credible structure and tone (and therefore appeal to me more). I don’t want to be unfair, or to draw false comparisons. Let me just say then that this is a forgettable candy of a novel, perfectly in line with the tone of the first in this series, and if that’s what you’re looking for then this will deliver.

The Fireman, Joe Hill – To start with a positive – Joe Hill remains a gifted writer, capable of presenting even the most familiar scenes with fresh eyes and making them new again. I’ve been a fan of his for three books and countless short stories, and still am.

Less positively, this is the fourth of his novels and I hated it. Much of my loathing lies with the cast, who just irritated me. The viewpoint character, Harper, had so little agency she was almost impossible to root for. She jumps from protector to protector, and every time she takes a stand in her own right the plot shifts to remove her choices yet again. She’s in a near-perpetual state of rescue, and I stopped caring about her fate within the opening third of the story. The supporting cast aren’t much better. The world of The Fireman is neatly divided into goodies (the small group that forms around Harper) and baddies (everybody else), with very little in between. It’s a clean dichotomy which just doesn’t fit with the potentially sprawling apocalyptic backdrop of humanity brought to its knees by the strange infection known as Dragonscale. I didn’t believe in it, at all. Among the goodies there’s also a saccharine undertaste to the relationships that form, which for me grew cloying very quickly. Hill has in previous novels made a strange art of unlikely protagonists, but here strays too far into caricature for me.

But the most annoying thing for me was the waste of some really interesting themes. There are several, though the one I latched onto early was the notion of a disease which accentuates humanity’s urge to cluster into groups of likeminded souls which cease to acknowledge ideas from outside their bubbles. In the current reality, where the internet pushes us all into caves full of people just like us and makes other viewpoints distant hostile things, this is a rich vein to tap, but The Fireman plants the seed of the idea and then drives on without tending to it further. Had I been more taken with the characters then this might not have stood out for me so much, but in the void created by my dislike of them I was looking for something else to carry me through the novel and was disappointed.

Other people seem to have enjoyed this a lot. For me, it was a long time spent with annoying people I did not care for, like a train journey sat next to a talkative stranger who thinks he’s much more interesting than he actually is. That it’s splendidly written does nothing to save it.

Just One Damned Thing After Another, Jodi Taylor – This is a hot mess of a book following the misadventures of a time travelling institute specialising in first hand historical research. It’s big plus is the main character and narrator Max, who begins the book as a new member of the team. She’s by turns funny, maddening, and likeable. A big negative is the rest of the cast who with only a couple of exceptions are wildly inconsistent creations often acting utterly out of character to serve the plot. Such as it is. Except it isn’t really. The story isn’t really a novel, but more a series of escapades told in chronological order. As the title states, it’s just one damned thing after another until it stops. I spent much of the journey waiting for things to unify somehow, but they really don’t and the experience ends up being frustrating. For that reason I’m unlikely to delve any further into this series – which is a shame, as I had high hopes before I realised I was on a voyage to nowhere.

Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind, Yuval Noah HarariOne of my top five books this year.

The Wolves of London, Mark Morris – An initially agreeable urban dark fantasy that begins in a detailed and credible London, providing a protagonist who has crawled out of a murky past of low-level crime and begun to make a professional life for himself as a lecturer. As he gets pulled back off course due to some credible threats to his family that he must seek out old contacts to remedy the book is at its most compelling. However as the plot shifts into the fantastical it loses much of this flavour. While the scenarios the author conjures prevent this from becoming generic, it nevertheless begins to swap out the street-level grime for something with a more familiar fantasy flavour. Where the fusion of the two is strong this is addictive, but by the time the book stops – with no resolution, for this is unabashedly the start of a series – it has lost some of what made it catch the attention in a crowded market.

The Society of Blood, Mark Morris – Where for me the previous book started very strong and then delivered ever diminishing returns as it became more clearly fantastical, this second instalment does nothing to re-engage me. Set primarily in the Victorian era (while failing to make much interesting use of the period), the story grinds almost to a halt where it should spring forward. Characters examine options, discuss implications, speculate aloud and to themselves endlessly about what might or might not have just happened/be about to happen, and get very little done. Some things do happen to them, but everything is external – the protagonists have lost all momentum of their own. I stopped caring halfway through and really had to push hard to reach the conclusion. There’s still potential in this series, but after a novel’s worth of pacing and navel-gazing I’m out.

Happy: Why More Or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine, Derren Brown – A fairly thorough user guide to the philosophical principles of the Stoic movement, and how their application might lead the reader to a happier life. While a little longer than it needs to be, it’s a book that allows you to ask questions about how responsible you can be for how happy you are. Brown keeps himself out of the text for large swathes – which is a shame given how personable the book becomes when he does allow himself to be its primary case study – and allows the reader to take centre stage. If you’re in the mood to reflect, then this is a handy mirror.

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