As the end of the year approaches, I have decided to break from the straightforward review posts that have populated Reader Dad to date, to do a brief round-up of the year’s reading, including my Top 10 of 2011 and my Most Disappointing of 2011.
If you have checked out my newly-added Reading List section, you will know that I have been recording everything I’ve read since 2003. My reading year runs from Christmas Day to Christmas Eve, because I like to have the decks cleared in time to enjoy the influx of new books that Christmas typically brings for the avid reader. By the end of this reading year, I will have read 62 books, which is my best year “since records began” (my current read, Stephen King’s 11.22.63 is likely to take me the rest of the week to complete). Of those, eight are 2011 debut novels for the authors in question. A further two are the first novels by established foreign authors to be translated into English. Twenty-two others are the first books I have read by their respective authors, and the rest are a mixture of favourites both old and new.
The focus of my reading this year has been on crime fiction, with over half of the books read falling into that genre, or one of its many sub-genres (including those books I have been categorising as “thrillers” for want of a better description). Holocaust/war fiction, science fiction, horror and westerns have all featured, and the list even includes a non-fiction title.
There is only one criteria for the lists below: for the book to be on the list, its first official publication date must have been between 1 January and 31 December 2011. For this reason, a couple of my favourite books of the year haven’t made it on to the list, but deserve honourable mentions nonetheless. Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars is a collection of four beautiful novellas to rival his earlier Different Seasons, which gave us “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” (source of Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption), “Apt Pupil” (and the film of the same name) and “The Body” (upon which Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me is based). Thaisa Frank’s beautiful Heidegger’s Glasses tells the tale of an underground compound filled with scribes whose sole purpose is to respond to letters addressed to people who have been killed in the Third Reich’s concentration camps. Using original letters, and with a cast of sympathetic characters, it’s an excellent and extremely touching novel. Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key, which was reissued by Hesperus late in 2010 is a must-read for anyone that enjoys to read. Simon Lelic’s third novel, The Child Who, won’t be published until early January, so you can expect to see it on my 2012 list.
The following lists are in reading order, as I can’t imagine how I would be able to rate them against each other. And, chances are, an extra one or two have snuck in. Hyperlinks will take you directly to my review (where it exists).
MATT’S TOP 10 OF 2011
SANCTUS by Simon Toyne (HarperCollins)
Once you start, you’ll just have to keep going until you reach the end, and this book gave me more late nights than I care to remember, always with the mantra “just one more chapter” on my lips.
A stunning debut, a dark and terrifying crime/horror/dark fantasy novel that will appeal to a broad spectrum of readers, and a book that cements Simon Toyne firmly in my own personal must-read list. On April 14th, make sure you get your hands on a copy; you won’t regret it.
THE DEMI-MONDE: WINTER by Rod Rees (Quercus)
The Demi-Monde is a well thought-out and fully realised steampunk universe, with echoes of Neal Stephenson’s THE DIAMOND AGE and Tad Williams’ OTHERLAND series. The novel, like most of Stephenson’s work, is huge in scope and contains a vast cast of characters, many of whom are plucked directly from the history books.
If author and publisher can maintain this standard for the rest of the series, THE DEMI-MONDE should become the cornerstone of a steampunk revival.
PLUGGED by Eoin Colfer (Headline)
Colfer has produced the perfect rollicking mystery. In tone, it’s probably closest to Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels or Scott Phillips’ The Ice Harvest, and I would recommend it to fans of both. There is comedy gold here – and Irish readers in particular will find more than their fair share of inside jokes – but the book is also plenty dark, and you’re never quite sure what’s waiting around the next corner.
It strikes me as a brave move for a man famous for his young adult fiction to branch out in a direction that is completely inappropriate for his usual audience, but with Plugged that move has paid off for Eoin Colfer.
OUTPOST by Adam Baker (Hodder & Stoughton)
In all, Outpost is an assured debut, and a welcome addition to a fine sub-genre of horror. Fast-paced, dark and unpredictable – Baker’s not afraid to put his characters through the mill, or kill them off for that matter – it’s exactly what I expect from a good horror novel. There is plenty of stiff competition in this area of fiction – Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song being two of the best – but Outpost is a worthy comer that will have no trouble standing up with such fine company.
BEAUTY AND THE INFERNO by Roberto Saviano (MacLehose Press)
Let’s not forget: this is a man who has given up any chance of a normal life – he is surrounded by bodyguards twenty-four hours a day – to let people know what is happening to his country. Anger is the most prevalent emotion here, but this is far from the rant that it could well have been.
Beauty and the Inferno is a tough read, but an important book that deserves an audience; Saviano has sacrificed too much for this book not to be read. It’s a good thing for him, and for the English-speaking world, that publishers like MacLehose Press exist and thrive, and bring such important literature to a wider audience.
KILLER MOVE by Michael Marshall (Orion)
Killer Move is an unconventional thriller, like the rest of the Marshall back catalogue. Darkly funny at times and disturbing and graphic at others, it treads a fine line between straight crime and straight horror, while never actually fitting exactly into either genre. Bill Moore begins life as a despicable human being, self-centred and worried only about how everyone else views him. But as his story progresses, and we watch his life fall apart, we’re suddenly in his corner, fighting his fight. It’s because the scenario Marshall outlines is so plausible and so topical: what if someone got hold of your various ecommerce and social network passwords and started to change peoples’ perceptions of who you are? Would we even notice before it was too late to do anything about it? The Internet in general and social networking in particular has made the world a very small place. But it is arguably – in Marshall’s mind at least – a darker and much more dangerous place: we never really know exactly who it is we’re talking to or why they might be interested in us.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS by Patrick deWitt (Granta)
Hidden behind Dan Stiles’ beautiful and striking cover is a surprising and wonderful piece of fiction. At times hilarious, at others grim and noirish, The Sisters Brothers is the perfect novel for people who like great fiction, regardless of genre – don’t let the fact that this is a Western put you off, if your preconceptions of that genre are coloured badly by those old John Wayne films. Living, breathing characters and a razor-sharp plot make this an instant classic up there with Lonesome Dove and Deadwood. It’s also one of the best books I’ve read this year.
REAMDE by Neal Stephenson (Atlantic Books)
Thriller is certainly a good description, but it’s much more than that, and so much more intelligent than what immediately springs to most peoples’ minds when the word is mentioned. It’s surprisingly fact-paced for a book its size, and Stephenson manages to maintain the reader’s interest for the duration – an astounding feat in itself. My first thought was that a book about Islamic terrorists was a strange topic for Stephenson to tackle, but it’s no stranger than anything else he has chosen to write about in the past. His work is definitely an acquired taste but, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, it’s a taste worth acquiring. A thousand pages is a big commitment to make in this fast-moving world, but Reamde is worth every second. This one is, hands down, my book of the year.
THE HOUSE OF SILK by Anthony Horowitz (Orion)
Horowitz does a fantastic job of keeping all the proverbial balls in the air, creating a perfectly-plotted set of mysteries, and a more-than-satisfactory set of solutions, while all the time maintaining the spirit of the original stories.
The House of Silk is a must for all fans of Sherlock Holmes. Pitch-perfect characterisation combined with a complex and involving plot leave the reader in no doubt that Holmes – and the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – are alive and well in the form of Anthony Horowitz. For anyone who has never read Holmes, this not a bad place to start; there is nothing here that requires previous knowledge of the characters, although those who have read the Holmes stories will surely come away with a much richer experience.
JULIA by Otto de Kat (MacLehose Press)
In the end, love does not conquer all and nobody lives happily ever after. Julia is a bleak and oppressive love story, mirroring the environment in which the love was born. It’s a beautifully-constructed mystery disguised as a literary novel which uses the oldest trick in the book – the unreliable voice – to catch the reader off-guard and take his breath away. In a wonderful translation by Ina Rilke and the usual high-quality packaging that we have come to expect from MacLehose Press, Julia is not to be missed.
IT may seem premature to include a book that I have yet to finish in my list of the best of the year but, at over halfway through I’m completely captivated by the story, and loving being transported once more into the world of Stephen King. The tips of the hat to King’s earlier classic, It, have only helped to cement this, for me, as a brilliant novel.
AND THE MOST DISAPPOINTING OF 2011
Because there was some talk on Twitter early in the month about balancing the “best of the year” with the “most disappointing” or “worst” of the year, I’ve decided to do just that. Anyone reading through the posts on Reader Dad will most likely spot immediately which book didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I’m being kind and calling it my “most disappointing”:
THE OBELISK by Howard Gordon (Simon & Schuster)
A great start leading to an ultimately poor debut for a man from whom I expected so much more. It’s an equally disappointing show from Simon & Schuster who could have improved it immensely if they’d only read it and provided feedback. If you’re tempted, save your money and pick up an 24 box set, where you’ll see Howard Gordon at his best.
In the coming weeks, look out for my review of Stephen King’s 11.22.63 to see if it warrants its position on the Top 10 *ahem*. Reader Dad’s first interview will also be appearing around the turn of the New Year, so check back to see my chat with one of my favourite authors. I will also be posting reviews for a slew of novels due for publication early in the New Year, so will be kept busy reading over the Christmas break.
It just remains for me to thank my regular reader, and everyone that pops in from time to time, for your support over the past ten months. I’d like to thank the wonderful publishers and publicists who have taken a punt on a newbie and provided me with some excellent review material. And I’d like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous 2012.
|THE HOUSE OF SILK
Anthony Horowitz (anthonyhorowitz.com)
Released: 1st November
Anthony Horowitz is, perhaps, best known by a certain generation of young boys as the man behind the popular Alex Rider series of books. It is, I think, less well-known that he is also the man behind some of the most popular mystery dramas currently on British television: Midsomer Murders, Poirot and Foyle’s War are amongst his creations. Young boys of a different generation (namely my own, and it is here that I start to show my age) know him better for an altogether different series of books: those featuring the Diamond Brothers, beginning with his 1986 novel, The Falcon’s Malteser. With The House of Silk, Horowitz makes his first (and hopefully not his last) foray into the world of probably the most iconic detective of them all: Sherlock Holmes.
When Dr John Watson’s wife takes a break to spend some time with a previous employer – and now good friend – outside London, he decides to move in with his old friend Sherlock Holmes for the duration. Whilst there, the men receive a visit from Edmund Carstairs, an art dealer from Wimbledon who spins a tale of train robberies, destroyed artworks, and a gang of flat-cap-wearing Irishmen operating out of Boston. He is afraid for his life, he tells Holmes, because a man wearing a flat cap has started standing outside his home, following him on evenings out; this man is, he believes, the sole surviving member of the Boston gang who has come to London to exact revenge on Carstairs for his involvement in the demise of his gang.
Holmes, intrigued, takes on the case, and visits Carstairs’ home. Within hours the man in the flat cap has burgled the house and fled to a small hotel in Bermondsey, where Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars track him down. When Holmes and Watson arrive on the scene, they find one of the Irregulars – a young boy called Ross – acting somewhat erratically. Inside the hotel, they find the man in the flat cap stabbed to death, and Holmes explains away Ross’s behaviour as being related. When the boy’s badly-beaten body turns up days later, Holmes and Watson find that things have taken a much more sinister turn, and that the mysterious House of Silk lies behind everything.
As is traditional, the story is narrated by the ever-faithful Dr Watson, now an old and infirm man who has outlived his best friend by several years. Bookended by brief notes from this elderly Watson, we are given explanation for why this story has never been told before. As is also traditional, the story opens with a lesson, by Holmes, in ratiocination and deductive reasoning, as he divines the reason for Watson’s visit based on a handful of seemingly innocuous clues.
I should mention at this point that I’ve been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for many years. Like, I suspect, many people of my generation, the abiding image I have of the man – and therefore the benchmark against which I compare all other Holmeses – is Jeremy Brett’s portrayal in the long-running ITV series. From the moment Horowitz’s Holmes opens his mouth, I heard Brett’s distinctive voice in my head and knew I was on to a winner, at least in terms of characterisation. The relationship between the two men is as fans have come to expect, with the mens’ mutual respect sometimes tempered by a certain amount of acerbic ribbing, usually by Holmes, of Watson:
“I take it you will join me?”
“Of course, Holmes. I would like nothing better.”
“Excellent. I sometimes wonder how I will be able to find the energy or the will to undertake another investigation if I am not assured that the general public will be able to read every detail of it in due course.”
Horowitz has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Holmes canon, and sets his story in a definite time period, both in the very real sense – the story takes place in November 1890 – but also by placing it in relation to the rest of Conan Doyle’s stories – we are some seven weeks after “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League”, and Holmes has just completed “The Adventure of the Dying Detective”. There is no doubt, both in terms of the references both overt and implicit, and the general tone Horowitz strikes, that the author has immersed himself in the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle whilst writing this latest adventure. It should be noted that this is the first Sherlock Holmes story that has ever been endorsed by the Conan Doyle estate, which should go some way to indicating how close Horowitz has come to depicting Holmes and the sometimes-hapless Watson.
Horowitz pulls out all the stops, reintroducing us to a whole cast of characters that have become, over the years, part of the national – if not global – consciousness: apart from Holmes and Watson, there is the ever-present and often-ignored Mrs Hudson; Detective Inspector Lestrade; Holmes’ unofficial police force in the shape of the Baker Street Irregulars; the more-intelligent older brother Mycroft; and, of course, Holmes’ nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. With one exception, these characters are introduced naturally, and play roles that are as familiar to any Holmes fan as the Persian slipper where he keeps his tobacco, or the infamous address at which he lives. Unfortunately, Moriarty’s introduction seemed slightly shoe-horned, as he appears as a kind of deus ex machina whose intervention, in the end, goes nowhere. But this is a minor quibble, and in no way detracts from the story, or interferes with canon.
The House of Silk consists of two mysteries which seem, at first, to be separate, one nested neatly inside the other and the two related, seemingly, by the flimsiest of links. “The Man in the Flat Cap” proceeds to a seemingly neat conclusion, and then Holmes hurries off in pursuit of the “The House of Silk”. But as the novel progresses it becomes clear that the two cases are more closely related than it seems at first and as the detective wraps up the mystery of the House of Silk, he returns his attention to the original mystery. In some ways, as with many Holmes stories, this is not a mystery for the reader to solve: it is a showcase for the singular talents of Sherlock Holmes. Like the stories of Conan Doyle, there are plenty of clues scattered around, and the eagle-eyed reader may be able to piece together some of the solution. Horowitz does a fantastic job of keeping all the proverbial balls in the air, creating a perfectly-plotted set of mysteries, and a more-than-satisfactory set of solutions, while all the time maintaining the spirit of the original stories.
The House of Silk is a must for all fans of Sherlock Holmes. Pitch-perfect characterisation combined with a complex and involving plot leave the reader in no doubt that Holmes – and the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – are alive and well in the form of Anthony Horowitz. As I mentioned at the start of this review, I have high hopes that this will not be Mr Horowitz’s last foray into the world of Holmes. For anyone who has never read Holmes, this not a bad place to start; there is nothing here that requires previous knowledge of the characters, although those who have read the Holmes stories will surely come away with a much richer experience. To quote Watson himself:
[I]t has been good to find myself back at Holmes’s side, […], always one step behind him (in every sense) and yet enjoying the rare privilege of observing, at close quarters, that unique mind.
I doubt I could have said it better myself.