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The 2014 Round-Up

As another year draws to a close, it’s time for my annual retrospective of what’s gone on at Reader Dad. There’s a lot to cover this year, so without further ado…

THE ROUND-UP

As the reading year closes, I have read 65 books this year, more than every year except last year, but I had an excuse for getting so much read last year! Of those, a massive 43 were by authors that are new to me (and a large percentage of those were 2014 debut authors). It feels like I’ve read a lot of crime this year, but when I look back on the list, I discover that my reading has been much more varied than I thought, covering everything from epistolary humour (Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members) to cannibalism (Season To Taste by Natalie Young), epic fantasy to Hitler satire. The list contains six translations, some of which you’ll find in the lists below and two re-reads, which are becoming a rarity these days when there are so many new books to read, and so little time in which to read them.

The big focus of the blog this year, aside from the reviews of dark fiction, was the #CarrieAt40 project that kicked off in April to celebrate Stephen King’s forty years as a published author. I’m delighted by the reaction, and would like to personally thank everyone who provided an essay: Keith Walters, Book Geek, Alison Littlewood, John Connolly, Bev Vincent, Sarah Langan, Mark West, Lloyd Shepherd, Steve Cavanagh, Simon Clark, V. M. Giambanco, Mason Cross, Nnedi Okorafor, Sarah Lotz, P. T. Hylton, Neal Munro, Simon Toyne, Lou Sytsma, Michael Marshall Smith, Kealan Patrick Burke, Andrew Pyper and Rob Chilver. I must also thank my good friend David Torrans of No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast for putting me in touch with Mr Connolly, and Graeme Williams at Orion Books for putting me in touch with Andrew Pyper. Thanks, too, to Mr King’s publishers, Hodder & Stoughton, who were extremely supportive and especially the wonderful Hodderscape folks who were angels when it came to publicity. Special thanks have to go to the lovely Philippa Pride and Kerry Hood, Mr King’s editor and publicist, respectively, at Hodder, for their support, and to Anne Perry for putting me in touch with them in the first place.

#CarrieAt40 comes to an end at the end of the year when I will be closing the Big Vote. Response has been lacklustre so far, so rather than the “definitive” answer I’d hoped for, I’ll be presenting the favourites as they stand. Please feel free to point everyone you know at the vote in the meantime, and maybe in the next week and a half we’ll get close to that “definitive” level.

And so to the important bit: the list of my favourite books of the year. Last year’s approach seemed to work well, so I’ll be using the same approach this year: my favourite debuts, and favourite non-debuts of the year. As always, the list contains books that were first published in 2014, and they’re listed in the order in which I read them, so no significance should be attached to their position in the list. Oh, and please don’t take the “ten” literally! As always, links will take you to my original review, where it exists.

MATT’S TOP TEN DEBUTS OF 2014

SEASON TO TASTE or HOW TO EAT YOUR HUSBAND by Natalie Young (Tinder Press)

At once gripping, wholeheartedly gruesome (Young seems to revel in the fact that just when you think you’ve experienced the worst there is, there is always something more still to be eked out of this incredible scenario) and darkly comic, Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband is one of the most original novels you’re likely to read, ever. With an attention to detail that is slightly scary, given the subject matter (Young has obviously done some thorough research), and the ability to make you want to simultaneously stop reading, and read faster, Natalie Young has done the unthinkable: she has taken an ordinary human being, placed her in an extraordinary situation, making her the villain of the piece in the process, and still manages to make the reader love her, root for her, want to see her succeed in her endeavours and, most importantly, get away with it. Often – and I know you’ll pardon the pun – hard to stomach, Season to Taste is like nothing you’ve ever read before, and pays dividends for those willing to stick with it and forge through the discomfort. It’s one of the best books you’ll read this year, and is guaranteed to stay with you for many years to come. I’m sure I’m not alone in being excited to see what Natalie Young has up her sleeve next; let’s just hope it doesn’t involve dinner.

   
RED RISING by Pierce Brown (Hodder & Stoughton)

Red Rising is a spectacular debut that endures beyond the final page. Set in an interesting world that, despite the obvious differences, really isn’t that far removed from our own, and peopled by characters that warrant our continued attention, it is a novel that demands to be read in as few sittings as possible. Fast-paced, action-packed, engrossing and wonderfully addictive, Red Rising marks the entrance of a fine new voice in science fiction, a young writer of immense talent who knows how to tell a story, and how to keep us coming back for more. This is a book you won’t want to miss, but be warned: once you’ve finished, you won’t want to wait for the next instalment of the trilogy.

   
THE UNDERTAKING by Audrey Magee (Atlantic Books)

Despite the early tone, Audrey Magee’s debut novel, The Undertaking, is as bleak and devastating as they come. A window into a small, personal part of World War II, Magee shows us horrors that we are never likely to forget, brief throw-away lines that will haunt and, in many ways, traumatise us long after we have put the book aside. The writing is beautiful, the dialogue perfectly measured and perfectly natural, the setting and background one we know well enough that the briefest glimpse of an event conveys all we need to know about what is going on outside the story of these entirely captivating – despite their ordinariness – characters around whom the story revolves. One of the strongest debuts I’ve seen in some time, The Undertaking marks Audrey Magee as an extremely talented writer to watch very closely in the future.

   
BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman (Harper Voyager)

In a world where we’re no longer frightened of the supernatural in fiction, mostly through exposure to whatever faux-documentary film series is currently top of the crop, Josh Malerman takes us back to first principles to scare the bejeesus clean out of us. Intense and paranoid, Malerman’s approach to storytelling leaves us as much in the dark as the novel’s protagonists and draws us into this threatening, dangerous world that lies in a not-too-distant future. Beautifully constructed in a way that constantly keeps us asking questions, doubting absolutely everything we are told, Bird Box has an edge-of-the-seat element – that dark journey along the river – that keeps the reader turning pages at a furious rate. Literary horror constructed around a highly original kernel, Bird Box heralds the arrival of a stunning new talent. The cover of the book exhorts “Don’t open your eyes”. I can guarantee that, within the first few pages, you won’t want to close your eyes until you’ve seen this gripping story through to the end. This is a novel you definitely won’t want to miss.

   
LOOK WHO’S BACK by Timur Vermes [trans. Jamie Bulloch] (MacLehose Press)

From the simple, eye-catching cover, to the pun-tastic back cover copy ("He’s back…and he’s Führious"), to the often gripping, often hilarious content in between, Look Who’s Back is that rare beast: a stunning piece of fiction that works despite the ridiculous outer premise and despite the fact that we should despise the man in whose head we ultimately find ourselves. Beautifully translated by Jamie Bulloch (who also provides a useful glossary at the end for those of us who are unfamiliar with Herr Stromberg, or Martin Bormann, or any of the countless other ”characters” who may be familiar to the book’s original German audience), this is a perfectly-judged skewering of 21st Century society and the values we hold most dear, as seen through the lens of one of the most detested – and detestable – monsters of recent history. Many readers are likely to be surprised with just how much they agree with him, and just how reasonable he seems in this brave new world where Herr Starbuck has a coffee shop on every corner. Look Who’s Back is a masterpiece, and marks Timur Vermes as one to watch. Do not, at any cost, miss this.

   
THE KILLING SEASON by Mason Cross (Orion)

The Killing Season marks the arrival of a new “must-read” author on the British thriller scene. In Carter Blake, Mason Cross has produced an engaging character whose wit, mysterious background and often dubious moral stance keep the reader coming back for more, and elevates The Killing Season from just another thriller to one of the finest you’re likely to have read since Jack Reacher stepped off the bus in Margrave, Georgia all the way back in 1997 (now, there’s a statistic that makes me feel old!). Cross makes Chicago and the surrounding area his own and his characters, despite his own background, are as American as American can be. A seemingly effortless and assured debut, you’ll be jonesing for your next Mason Cross/Carter Blake fix before you’ve even finished this first helping.

   
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR by Joël Dicker [trans. Sam Taylor] (MacLehose Press)

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve read in a number of years, and likely one of the best I’ll read for a number of years to come. Skilfully constructed, with a cast of memorable and engaging characters – not only Marcus and Gahalowood, but also Nola and Harry himself – it’s a masterclass in small-town American crime made all the more impressive by its non-American roots. It may look daunting, but once you crack the spine, it’s next to impossible to set aside for any length of time. Without doubt, one of my favourite reads of all time, I’ll be watching Joël Dicker’s career extremely closely from here on. Whatever you do, don’t miss this.

   
THE AXEMAN’S JAZZ by Ray Celestin (Mantle)

Ray Celestin’s first novel is big on characterisation and sense of place. It’s a spot-on rendition of a unique point in time and a unique place on Earth, and has enough suspense to ensure that the reader stays engaged throughout. Celestin excels when it comes to attention to detail – both in terms of the history and the location – but never at the cost of moving the story along and The Axeman’s Jazz is an excellent debut, the perfect introduction to a talented writer and, with any luck, a handful of entertaining and engaging detectives.

   
THE EXPEDITION: A LOVE STORY by Bea Uusma [trans. Agnes Broomé] (Head of Zeus)

The Expedition: A Love Story is one of those gems that I might never have picked up had I not received a copy from the publisher. It’s the story of a little-known Arctic expedition that went horribly wrong, and one woman’s lifelong quest to discover the truth. Beautifully written, it’s obvious from the beginning that this is a labour of love. We can only hope that Bea Uusma turns her attention to something else in the near future and shares her exceptional talent with us again. I’m struggling to think of a book I have enjoyed more this year, and can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in the art of telling a story.

 

MATT’S TOP TEN NON-DEBUTS OF 2014

THE SUDDEN ARRIVAL OF VIOLENCE by Malcolm Mackay (Mantle)

I’ve mentioned before that it would be almost impossible to read How a Gunman Says Goodbye without having first read The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. The same applies here: while The Sudden Arrival of Violence is an excellent novel, there is too much backstory to dive in here for the first time. To me, the trilogy feels like a single book – a tale constructed around Calum MacLean’s short tenure as Peter Jamieson’s gunman, but not a tale about that tenure – and should be judged as such. It is one of the most original pieces of crime fiction I have read in a long time, told in a unique and unbelievably engaging voice and populated by a cast of characters whose story we need to know, despite the fact that we wouldn’t want to meet them in a dark alley. The Sudden Arrival of Violence is the perfect ending to a perfect trilogy, expertly plotted, well paced and, above all, beautifully written. Mackay continues to astound, and this is one reader for whom the end of the Glasgow Trilogy will leave a massive hole. I can’t wait to see what Malcolm Mackay has up his sleeve next.

   
THE WIND IS NOT A RIVER by Brian Payton (Mantle)

The Wind Is Not a River is a book that will draw you into the story of these separated lovers and their quest – however oblique – to be reunited. Entirely captivating and beautifully told it draws the reader in slowly, alternating between the two stories as the distance between their protagonists grows gradually smaller, until the book is almost impossible to set aside for anything but the briefest moment. At its heart, it is a beautiful tale of love and devotion – not, you’re probably thinking, the usual fare for Reader Dad (and you’d be right) – but it also shines a light on humanity in one of its recent dark periods. Between the cruelty of the Imperial Japanese Army and the individual cruelties of American men long separated from civilisation, Payton shows that nature at its worst doesn’t even compare. A surprising choice for me, I don’t expect to be this invested in a piece of fiction for the foreseeable future. Miss at your peril, but do keep the tissues handy.

   
IRÈNE by Pierre Lemaitre [trans. Frank Wynne] (MacLehose Press)

While Alex received critical acclaim on its release last year, Irène, Pierre Lemaitre’s first novel, will be the book that people will remember in years to come. Intelligent and engrossing, it’s a worthwhile read primarily for that sense of amazement that will have you flicking back through pages looking for the mirrors or trapdoors, but also because of the mystery itself. A crime novel for genre fans penned by a man who is obviously a fan himself, Irène is beautifully translated by the always-reliable Frank Wynne and stunningly presented in the usual high-standard MacLehose package. If you were one of the people who enjoyed Alex, you’re going to love Irène, despite what you think you already know. If you’re lucky enough to still be a Lemaitre virgin, do yourself a favour and read a book that is sure to be high on many peoples’ (my own included) "best of the year" lists come December.

   
ABOVE by Isla Morley (Two Roads)

By turns funny and heart-breaking, tense, horrific, tender, Above is a beautifully-written examination of life interrupted and the terrors that can be inflicted by the people we believe we can trust. At the centre of the story is the feisty, tomboyish Blythe, but it is much more than just her story. Isla Morley’s second novel is an attention-grabbing, twist-filled nightmare pulled straight from the headlines. Perfectly-judged, it quickly gets its hooks into the reader and refuses to let go. Despite the comparisons, you haven’t read anything quite like this before. Above is sure to be Isla Morley’s breakout novel. Morley herself is destined for great things and is definitely worth watching.

   
THE UNQUIET HOUSE by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)

Returning to the quiet, creepy horror with which her debut novel was suffused, Alison Littlewood’s third novel, The Unquiet House, is the work of a writer whose talent continues to grow with each novel. She has an exceptionally clear voice, a distinctive style that, coupled with an intuitive understanding of which buttons to press and when to get the reactions she wants from the reader, makes each new book an unmissable event. If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet, I suggest you do so sooner rather than later: you’re missing one of the most exceptional horror authors of the current generation.

   
MR MERCEDES by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

All of the ingredients that long-time fans of King’s work have come to expect are here, with the exception of the supernatural (which is not as unusual as non-readers might believe). The strength, as always, lies in King’s power to build characters with whom we can empathise (and, more importantly, who we can hate with a passion that exceeds all common sense). While the whole book is a result of the author’s talent in this area, King gives a short, powerful masterclass in the novel’s opening chapter, introducing us to characters whose entire history we will know within the space of ten or twelve pages, before wiping them out before our very eyes with the simple press of the accelerator of a grey Mercedes Benz SL500.

As always, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir when it comes to reviewing Stephen King’s books. Mr Mercedes is an exceptional addition to an already incredible canon, and what better way to start in on the second forty years (well, we can hope!)? With his trademark voice, and all the charm and wit that it brings,  Stephen King has produced a character-centric thriller that should appeal to all readers of that genre, without alienating his long-time fan-base, once again proving that he is without match, regardless of the subject matter.

   
THE THREE by Sarah Lotz (Hodder & Stoughton)

In equal measures gripping and frightening, Sarah Lotz’s The Three is the type of book that it’s difficult to put down once you’ve started reading. An easy narrative style, despite the vast array of different voices – each easily identifiable – and a mystery that stretches for the duration of the book, keep the pages turning and the blood pumping. This is apocalyptic horror at its best: old-school storytelling that relies on the reader’s imagination to fuel the fear. The most original novel I’ve read in at least the past year, in terms of story, structure and characterisation, it’s a must for anyone who claims to like – or love – books.

   
NO HARM CAN COME TO A GOOD MAN by James Smythe (The Borough Press)

Part political thriller, part technological nightmare and part cautionary tale about the amount of trust we place in the technology that has become ubiquitous over the past half-decade or so, Jame Smythe’s latest novel (I’ve lost count!), No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is the work of a writer who shows no sign of slowing down or reaching the peak of his talent. Tense and unnerving, it’s an all-too-believable story that combines the power of technology and the power of the press and public opinion to produce a frightening vision of what lies just around the corner. No Harm Can Come to a Good Man confirms that, despite a rocky start, James Smythe is in a league of his own, as comfortable on earth as he is in space. Highly original, beautifully written, pure gold.

   
THE HOUSE ON THE HILL by Kevin Sampson (Jonathan Cape)

A carefully-constructed plot, well-rounded characters and pitch-perfect locations make this beautifully-written book the perfect follow-up to one of last year’s best novels. Kevin Sampson proves that when it comes to dark, character-driven crime fiction, he is in a league of his own. The House on the Hill is crime fiction at its finest, with a broad appeal regardless of whether or not you’ve readThe Killing Pool. DCI Billy McCartney continues to engage, and it is clear that there is still much to this character left to discover. I can’t recommend this – and its predecessor – highly enough, and I, for one, will be on tenterhooks waiting for the third instalment.

   
STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador)

Without doubt one of the most original takes on the post-apocalyptic world that I have come across in some time, Station Eleven is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Mandel has created a world like none we’ve ever seen and populated with characters who, for the duration of the story and beyond, will become the most important people in your life. With references to everything from Shakespeare to Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Mandel examines the ways in which we make our mark on the world and on the people around us, both in the macrocosm (how the shredded remains of humanity continue to survive and thrive in this new world) and the microcosm (the effect that Arthur Leander, however briefly he may have touched their lives, has left on the central characters of the novel). Mandel has left the perfect set-up for a sequel (or several), and it will be interesting to see if she returns to the post-apocalyptic world of Year Twenty, or if our imaginations will be left to their own devices. Either way, Station Eleven is not to be missed, one of the finest novels of recent years and one that is destined to stand (pun most definitely intended) proudly alongside the giants of the genre.

   
PERFIDIA by James Ellroy (William Heinemann)

James Ellroy, the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction, is one of those writers who has long been a must-read for me. With Perfidia, he proves that he still has what it takes to keep his place on that list: dark and sinister, it is a look at the city of Los Angeles from the point of view of the immoral – and often outright evil – men who are supposed to keep it safe and enforce its laws. When he’s on form, very few writers can equal the writing of James Ellroy. With Perfidia, Ellroy is top of his game, and the promise of three more novels in this sequence, with Dudley Smith pulling strings at the centre of an intricate web, is enough to fill this reader’s heart with immense joy. An excellent introduction to anyone who has yet to discover this incredibly talented writer, Perfidia builds on a long-established base to ensure that long-time readers will come away fulfilled and hoping for more. If you only read one crime novel this year, it should definitely be this one.

   
REVIVAL by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

Revival is the perfect example of the long, slow build to a barely-glimpsed horror that is no less frightening for its brevity. Intensely personal, the book invites the reader to consider their own beliefs in order to understand the beliefs of the novel’s central characters, Jamie and Charlie. One of the finest novels King has produced in his long career, it is a welcome return to the pure horror that made his name, while still retaining the deep insight into the human condition that has defined much of his later work. Stephen King continues at the top of his game, one of our finest living writers. Revival is likely to become a firm favourite for many Constant Readers, an excellent example of the breadth of King’s abilities as a storyteller.

   
A MAN LIES DREAMING by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)

Beautifully constructed, this story within a story, mystery within mystery, is a fresh and unique take on Holocaust fiction, which is no less powerful or disturbing for its strange direction. Flawless, engaging and with an eye for detail that is second-to-none, A Man Lies Dreaming is the perfect follow-up to last year’s The Violent Century, even going so far as to examine one of the earlier novel’s key questions, albeit from a different angle: what makes a man? One of the best novels I’ve read in a year of excellent novels, A Man Lies Dreaming stands beside some of the classics of Holocaust literature while providing a more accessible route than some, and is nothing less than a masterpiece.

 

COMING SOON…

2015 should see a return to the usual schedule of reviews and guest posts, despite the fact that I’ve already read the best book of the year. Despite that, it’s already shaping up to look like an excellent year, with the return of Bill Hodges in Stephen King’s Finders Keepers and an announcement early in the New Year concerning Joe Hill. The year also brings with it new Daniel Polansky, the follow-up to Pierce Brown’s Red Rising and Paula Lichtarowicz’s second novel, Creative Truths in Provincial Policing, to name but a few. Don’t forget that the #CarrieAt40 Big Vote closes at midnight on December 31st, so do please vote, and spread the word.

All that remains is to thank the publishers and publicists who have been so kind to me this year, and have kept me stocked up with wonderful reading material. Thanks also to the authors who take time out to write guest posts or answer interview questions, and to all those (mentioned above) who provided essays for the #CarrieAt40 project. And thanks to you, the readers, who make it all worthwhile; without you, I’d just be talking to myself, and I already do far too much of that.

And on that note, Merry Christmas and a happy, safe and prosperous 2015 to each and every one of you.

THE UNQUIET HOUSE by Alison Littlewood

Unquiet_House_PBO THE UNQUIET HOUSE

Alison Littlewood (www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk)

Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)

£7.99

Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?

It is love at first sight when Emma Dean first sets eyes on Mire House, which she has inherited from a distant, previously-unknown relative. She moves in and soon discovers there is more to the house than meets the eye: the dirty black suit hanging in the wardrobe, and the old man that obviously owns it who she finds standing at the end of her bed on her first night in the house; the muddy footprints that keep appearing in the hall; and, most disturbing of all, the bench in the neighbouring church yard that overlooks the house and is inscribed with the legend "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me? Matthew 27:46". Is the house really, as it seems, haunted, or is it all the work of Charlie, a young man her own age who should have had a stronger claim to Mire House? As we step back through the history of the house, it becomes clear that it is a cursed place, and in gifting it to Emma, Clarence Mitchell may well have had an ulterior motive.

With her third novel, Alison Littlewood returns to the realms of horror that we find in her debut novel, A Cold Season. What at first seems like a straightforward haunted house story takes dark and sinister turns as we learn the history of Mire House and the woman for whom it was built. The story opens in 2013, with Emma Dean inheriting the house from a relative she didn’t know she had. As soon as we see the house, we can feel that there is something wrong, though Emma herself seems completely captivated by it. There is something malevolent here, a sense that the house knows what it wants (look at the colour of the living room through the different eras, for example), and that the people that have died here in the past are still present. We return to Emma at the end of the novel, with a better understanding of what is happening and, more importantly, why.

Between these two bookending sections, we pay visits to the house in 1973 and again during the final stages of its construction in 1939. Frank Watt, a young boy of eleven, is our guide for the former section, while Frank’s mother, Aggie, takes over the reins for the latter. As we proceed backwards through time, we unpeel the history of Mire House as if it were the layers of an onion. Rumours and supposition give way to harder facts: in 1973 we meet Mr Owens, the owner of the dirty black suit that Emma finds hanging in her wardrobe, and catch more substantial glimpses of the lady in the black veil. In 1939, we meet the lady in the black veil while she is still alive, and learn, first-hand, the terrible history behind the curse on Mire House.

The three stories are cleverly intertwined in a way that gives us the information we need as we progress back through history, but still holds enough back to ensure maximum impact for the final reveal. It’s a beautifully-constructed tale that grabs the reader from the very first glimpse of Mire House, and carries us along – uneasy and, let’s be honest, more than a little bit frightened – for the duration. Alison Littlewood once again proves that she is a master (mistress?) of the quiet school of horror. Her writing is pitch perfect, the language changing according to the time period, her ability to induce a bad case of the heebie jeebies in the reader second to none.

The Unquiet House feels partly like an homage to Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black – the big old house bordered by marshland; the cemetery; and, perhaps most telling, the woman in the black veil and her terrible history. Far from a reworking, or retreading of the plot, though, The Unquiet House is a beast of an entirely different species: stripped of all the finery, it’s a haunted house novel and, despite the presence of the ghosts, it is the house itself that instils the greatest fear in the reader. It’s a haunted house novel by a writer of exceptional skill (I’ve said it before, but it does bear repeating) that stands alongside the greats of the genre: fertile ground worked by the likes of Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, Stephen King, against whose seminal works Alison Littlewood can hold her head high.

Returning to the quiet, creepy horror with which her debut novel was suffused, Alison Littlewood’s third novel, The Unquiet House, is the work of a writer whose talent continues to grow with each novel. She has an exceptionally clear voice, a distinctive style that, coupled with an intuitive understanding of which buttons to press and when to get the reactions she wants from the reader, makes each new book an unmissable event. If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet, I suggest you do so sooner rather than later: you’re missing one of the most exceptional horror authors of the current generation.

#CarrieAt40: A Regular Guy by ALISON LITTLEWOOD

Unquiet_House_PBO ALISON LITTLEWOOD

On the web: www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk

On Twitter: @Ali__L

I don’t actually remember the first time I read Carrie. I can remember reading it, of course – I’ve done so more than once – but not the when and where. It would have been when I was pretty young, and busy reading everything I could lay my hands on. Part of that was borrowing my brother’s horror novels, which usually had black covers and big silver foil letters on the front. They were generally by Stephen King or James Herbert, with the result that, for me, those books WERE ‘horror’. Until I stumbled on the Mammoth Books of Best New Horror and discovered a whole new raft of writers, they defined the genre; for many, I guess they still do.

Stephen King is a giant. We all know that. He’s also an incredibly talented writer, and better, he always comes across as a very decent guy. I’ve read many more of his novels since then, and loved the vast majority. He has a great way with characters; the people in his books feel like one of us. We discover the unfolding events at their side, which makes it all the more terrifying when the dark surfaces. Sometimes the fears are supernatural in origin, but all too often they’re human. Carrie’s mother, after all, is one of the scariest things in the book. Her subjugation to a religious idea, the fact that it overrides the human connections in her life, even with her daughter – that’s terrifying. And then there’s the cruelty of children, so vividly portrayed; the claustrophobia of a child who doesn’t fit in, trapped in all the indignities and callousness that school life can offer. What bookish child can’t relate to that?

What means the most to me though, when I think of Carrie, is the story of how it came to be written and published. There was the young Stephen King, battling to keep his family afloat – hey, just as if he was a regular guy! And he penned the first few pages, no doubt had a stern talking-to from his inner editor, and chucked them in the bin. And there the story of Carrie may have ended, if it wasn’t for his wife digging them out and telling him he needed to finish it.

Stephen_King_On_WritingI reiterate: just as if he was a regular guy. Because, for a long time, I hardly dared to put pen to paper. I’d built writing up to be something big and scary that other people did. I surely couldn’t do it; I’d better not even try. And then I read On Writing, in which, among other things, King tells the story of writing Carrie. That book was like getting a damn good talking to. And it’s full of hope; the discarded manuscript didn’t just get published but ended up being sold into paperback, for a fairy tale figure. (King rushed out to buy Tabitha a gift: he picked a hair-dryer. It was the only thing he could find in his local store. For some reason, that little detail always makes me smile and want to cry at the same time.)

Soon after reading that story, I went out and joined a local writing class. I started putting words on paper. And it took some time, but I’d actually started out on a little fairy tale of my own.

So thank you, Stephen King – not just for writing a wonderful novel, but for sharing the story of its birth. It’s meant a huge amount to me, as I imagine it has for a great many other people. And it’s good to know you’re a regular guy – but many of us still know that you really are a giant.

Alison Littlewood is the author of A Cold Season, published by Jo Fletcher Books. Her second novel, Path of Needles, is a dark blend of fairy tales and crime fiction, and her latest, a ghost story called The Unquiet House, is set for release in April 2014.

Alison’s short stories have been picked for the Best Horror of the Year and Mammoth Book of Best New Horror anthologies, as well as The Best British Fantasy 2013 and The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime 10. Other publication credits include the anthologies Terror Tales of the Cotswolds, Where Are We Going? and Never Again. Alison lives in West Yorkshire, England, with her partner Fergus.

PATH OF NEEDLES by Alison Littlewood

45851_Path_of_Needles_PBO.indd PATH OF NEEDLES

Alison Littlewood (www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk)

Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)

£7.99

PC Cate Corbin is one of the first officers on the scene when the body of a young girl is discovered in rural West Yorkshire. Seeing something familiar in the way the body has been posed – the gown, mirror, partially-eaten apple – Cate is immediately reminded of the tale of Snow White. Her insight earns her a place on the investigation, and she brings Alice Hyland, an expert on fairy tales, on board as a consultant. When a second body is found, this one bearing the more obvious cape of Little Red Riding Hood, it becomes clear that Cate’s instincts were right. Both scenes contain elements found in obscure variants of the well-known tales and suspicion immediately falls on Alice.

Following last year’s stunning debut, A Cold Season, Alison Littlewood moves into the realms of straight police procedural with her second novel, Path of Needles. It’s a surprising move, and I will admit to being slightly dubious through the early sections of the book. But, as with its predecessor, there is a pervasive sense of creepiness that sets it apart, makes it difficult to slot into one genre pigeonhole or another.

At the centre of the story are Cate Corbin and Alice Hyland, two very different women who form an instant friendship upon meeting. Alice has been visited by a strange blue bird that she believes is, in some way, related to the deaths that she has been called upon to help with. Cate, at first a staunch defender of the other woman, soon begins to call her own judgement into question as she grows more suspicious of Alice’s motives, ultimately viewing her as a prime suspect as the fairy tale references grow ever more obscure with each body found. The novel’s strength lies in the characterisation of these two women: on the one hand, the ditzy, mysterious Alice, whose actions make her a suspect in the mind of the reader from the outset; on the other Cate, insecure and fickle, her relationship with Alice driven, in large part, by her relationship with her boss, and her constant need to impress him.

The fairy tale references, the strange blue bird that turns up from time to time – and plays an important part in the novel’s denouement – and the rural, wooded setting all combine to give the reader a sense of unease, a lurking dread that there might be more to this than a series of related murders, something sinister waiting in the wings. This is what I want from an Alison Littlewood novel and Path of Needles delivers in spades. It’s where she excels, those elements of quiet horror that insinuate their way into the mind of the reader to unsettle and unnerve. Littlewood uses the West Yorkshire countryside to her advantage, and the deeply embedded sense of place that comes as part and parcel of the story is as important as the characters who drive the story along.

At first mildly disappointing (“ugh, another police procedural; where’s the horror?”), Path of Needles quickly sets itself apart from the run-of-the-mill police drama. Very different to A Cold Season, it does share some of the themes and elements from the earlier novel: strong central female characters and the beauty of rural England being the two most obvious. The disappointment disappears quickly enough, as we find ourselves sucked into the mystery. Legitimate suspects abound, including Alice herself, and Littlewood does a fine job of keeping the reader on their toes until the surprising final revelation.

Alison Littlewood’s second novel serves to cement her position as one of Britain’s finest living horror authors, while proving that she can also turn her hand to a credible whodunit. Well-researched and impeccably-plotted, Path of Needles will keep you turning pages long after bedtime while making you wish you’d stuck to daylight hours. If you like your fiction dark and uncomfortable, then this is definitely one for you. I can’t recommend book or author highly enough.

The 2012 Round-Up

It’s that time of the year again when the “best of the year” lists start to appear. Not wanting to be left out, and because I had some fun with it last year, I’ve decided to do another round-up, and remind everyone what my top ten (or so) books of 2012 are.

THE ROUND-UP

By the end of this reading year (Christmas Eve, for me), I will have read 63 books, one more than last year’s total and a personal best for me. While crime fiction still accounts for a large fraction of what I read this year (26 of the 63 books), my reading focus has shifted slightly over the course of the year. This is mainly due to very kind publicists sending review copies of books that I might not otherwise have picked up. There is still a theme running through much of my reading, but Reader Dad is now much less about “Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction” and more about the darkness that lies deep within the human soul. The list contains its fair share of horror and holocaust fiction and a handful of deeply disturbing character studies that appeal to the noir-lover that hides inside me.

Of the 63 books, a massive 32 are by authors that are new to me, including six debut authors and eight foreign authors whose work was published in English for the first time this year. The rest are a selection favourites both old (Stephen King, Neal Stephenson) and relatively new (Colin Cotterill, Justin Cronin). 2012 also saw some experimentation with the blog, moving away from posting only book reviews, to including author interviews, guest posts and even one book-inspired travelogue. As the year draws to a close and I look back at what I have achieved, I find that I’m happy with the format, and hope to include more interviews and guest posts as we move into 2013 and beyond. I am, of course, always happy to hear from my readers, if you have any suggestions or comments.

Without further ado, then, it’s time to look at my favourite books of the year. As with last year, there is only one criteria: for the book to be on the list, its first official publication date must have been between 1 January  and 31 December 2011. As I mentioned, it’s been a bumper year, so whittling the list down to ten was nigh on impossible, so you’ll see an extra couple slipping in. The books are listed in the order they were read, with the exception of my stand-out, which I’ll list at the end. Links take you to the original review, where it exists.

MATT’S TOP 10 OF 2012

The-Child-Who - Lelic

THE CHILD WHO by Simon Lelic (Mantle)

I have said it before, but I’ll say it again: Simon Lelic is a man to watch, a must-read author, the real deal. The Child Who is a powerful and heart-wrenching thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and drag you, emotionally, into the thick of the plot. This is, without doubt, Lelic’s finest work to date. It is a showcase for a man who is the master of his art, a skilful plotter, and a writer who proves that, when it comes to language, spare can be beautiful. A stunning novel from one of the finest writers working today. Not to be missed.

   
EASY MONEY - Jens Lapidus

EASY MONEY by Jens Lapidus [tr: Astri von Arbin Ahlander] (Macmillan)

Easy Money is an assured and brilliant debut – I’ll admit I was surprised that it was, indeed, Lapidus’ first novel, and not just the first to appear in English translation, as sometimes happens. It’s not difficult to see why it’s the fastest-selling Swedish crime novel in a decade, and why it’s already a very successful film (one, it saddens me to say, that has already been lined up for an American remake). It ticks all the boxes I look for in a good crime thriller: action-packed, gritty, dark, violent, funny and, above all, realistic. It introduces three unforgettable characters who you will love and hate in equal measure as the story progresses. The good news is that it’s also the first book in a trilogy (books two and three of which have already been published in Sweden, so with luck we won’t have to wait too long to get our hands on them). It’s worth mentioning again that credit is due to the translator – this is her first novel translation, which is something of a feat – who has taken a very difficult style and made it work beautifully. If you’re a fan of James Ellroy or Don Winslow, you can’t miss this. Jens Lapidus is definitely one to watch.

   
ANGELMAKER - Nick Harkaway

ANGELMAKER by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann)

Angelmaker is that rare beast: the sophomore novel that lives up to – if not surpasses – the promise of the author’s first. It’s a wonderfully-written book – Harkaway has a knack with the language that makes this huge novel very easy to read and enjoy. It has more than its fair share of dark and shocking scenes and more than a handful of genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and even one or two places where both things are true at the same time. It’s clear to see the novel’s influences, but this is something new, something different and completely unexpected. It’s goes in a much different direction than The Gone-Away World (although there are connections enough for the sharp-eyed reader), which might disappoint a small contingent looking for more of the same, but it does achieve a similar end: it’s a beautiful showcase for a talented writer, a unique voice and inventive mind who can, it seems, turn his hand to anything.

   
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TRIESTE by Daša Drndić [tr: Ellen Elias-Bursac] (Maclehose Press)

This is a difficult book to read, as horror builds upon horror until the reader feels numb, but it is an important novel, and one that deserves a wide readership. In the end, Trieste is more documentary than fiction. It’s a beautifully-written work (despite the often-horrific subject matter) and appears in a wonderful translation from the ever-reliable Maclehose Press. I certainly won’t claim to have enjoyed the experience, but it’s one I’m glad I had, and one that will stay with me for a long time. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

   
wind-through-the-keyhole-stephen-king

THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE by Stephen King (Hodder)

For the aficionado […] The Wind through the Keyhole has everything that we’ve come to expect from the series. Here are our friends in the middle of their journey and while the starkblast poses no threat (we know they all live through it), King still manages to notch up the suspense in the telling. Here is the broken-down world that these people inhabit, the world that is almost, but not quite, like some future version of our own. And here, most importantly, is our old adversary, the man in black, the Walkin’ Dude, Randall Flagg, doing what he loves and what, if we’re totally honest with ourselves, what we love to see him do. The subhead of this book fills me with a sense of expectant glee: not Dark Tower 4.5, as was originally mooted, but A Dark Tower Novel. This is one Constant Reader that lives in the hope that Roland and his ka-tet still have more to say, especially if what they have to say is as worthwhile as what’s within the covers of The Wind through the Keyhole. There is no better master of his craft than Stephen King, and I’m finding it difficult to believe that I’ll see a better book than this before year’s end.

   
a-cold-season1

A COLD SEASON by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)

Littlewood’s first novel is an assured and finely-crafted piece of work, probably the best horror debut since Joe Hill’s 2007 novel,Heart-Shaped Box. It brings the promised scares without resort to nasty tricks or gore, and proves that it is still possible to write engaging, entertaining horror fiction without zombies or vampires. Earlier I wondered how you measure the success of a good horror novel. I’m not ashamed to admit that our house has been lit up like a Christmas tree for most of the past week; it’s a rare novel these days that can bring the creep factor to a hardened horror fan like me, but this succeeds admirably where so many others have failed. If you are in any way a fan of horror fiction, and have not yet done so, you need to read A Cold Season. Just make sure you know where the light switches are.

   
Railsea UK

RAILSEA by China Miéville (Macmillan)

Wildly imaginative and totally unique, Railsea is a beautifully-written vision of a world that could only have sprung from the mind of China Miéville. Peopled by a cast of colourful individuals, it’s a stunning rework of a classic of literature, and a look at what happens when we travel outside the bubble that is the world we know. Railsea is Miéville on top form, and shows a talented artist doing what he does best, and what he evidently loves doing. The invented words and general writing style can sometimes make Miéville a tough author to approach for the first time. The payoff here is more than worth the effort, and Railsea is the perfect introduction to one of the most original writers in any genre.

   
TURBULENCE - Samit Basu

TURBULENCE by Samit Basu (Titan Books)

Credited as the creator of Indian English fantasy, Samit Basu arrives in the UK as an accomplished, some might say veteran, writer –Turbulence is his fifth novel, making him the best fantasy writer you’ve never heard of. That’s a state of affairs that you should rectify with all possible haste. Turbulence is a superhero novel like none you’ve seen before. A polished storyline, engaging characters and razor sharp wit combine to make this a must-read for everyone that has ever enjoyed a comic. It’s funny and action-packed, yes, but it’s also extremely intelligent and thought-provoking. It’s a perfect introduction to an excellent writer, and we can only hope that his back catalogue is made available in the UK in short order. It’s also an excellent start to a series that looks set to redefine the superhero genre for the twenty-first century. Kudos to Titan Books to bringing this excellent author, and this exciting series, to a much wider audience.

   
ALIF THE UNSEEN - G Willow Wilson

ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson (Corvus Books)

G. Willow Wilson has produced an exceptional debut novel that seamlessly melds technology and mythology to astounding effect. A must read for fans of Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman, Alif the Unseen introduces us to a brilliant new author with talent to burn. With elements as diverse as computing, djinn, love, adventure and an examination of what makes us who we are, there is something here for everyone. The Diamond Age for the twenty-first century, Alif the Unseen establishes Wilson as one of the finest new writers to emerge this year. I, for one, can’t wait to see where she goes next.

   
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LET THE OLD DREAMS DIE AND OTHER STORIES by John Ajvide Lindqvist [tr: Marlaine Delargy] (Quercus)

Let The Old Dreams Die proves that John Ajvide Lindqvist is as comfortable and as adept in the short form as the long. A showcase of a writer at the top of his game, it stands alongside Skeleton Crew, 20th Century Ghosts and The Panic Hand as an example of some of the finest short horror fiction you’ll find today. The two afterwords are also worth reading; self-deprecating and very funny, they show a writer who loves what he does and give some insight into his work. With six years since the original publication in Sweden of Paper Walls, we can but hope that it won’t be long before Lindqvist has enough stories to fill a second volume.

   
THE TWELVE - Justin Cronin

THE TWELVE by Justin Cronin (Orion Books)

Cronin slips easily back into the world he created two years ago in The Passage. The Twelve is a much different beast, as the central parts of epic trilogies tend to be. Starting slow, picking up the threads left loose at the end of the first book, Cronin builds slowly towards a false climax, tying up enough loose ends to leave the reader satisfied, while leaving enough to make us want to come back for more. The Twelve is a worthy successor to The Passage, and is well worth the two-year wait we have had to endure to have it in our hands. Cronin’s plotting is as tight as ever, his writing beautiful, flowing – this seven-hundred page novel is gone in the blink of an eye, a testament to how well written it is. Abrupt ending aside, there is much to love about The Twelve, not least the fact that we get to visit once more with old friends. Perfect autumn reading for fans of The Passage, it should also give new readers an excuse to dip their toes in the water. With luck, we won’t have to wait much longer than another two years to find out how this wonderful story plays out.

AND THE STAND-OUT

One book stood head-and-shoulders above the rest for me this year, so I felt it deserved its own section:

HHhH

HHHH by Laurent Binet [tr: Sam Taylor] (Harvill Secker)

HHhH is an extraordinary piece of work, a book that sets out to be a historical document and ends up as something completelyother. At times tense and thrilling, at others touching and intimate, the author manages to endow this story and these characters with a three-dimensionality that would otherwise be lacking in a straightforward reportage of the events. We are also offered a unique insight into the mind-set of the author, whose sole task should be to relate the events as they happened, but who is so invested in the story that impartiality is impossible. At once accessible history and fast-paced thriller, HHhH is, to overuse a cliché, like no book you’ve read before. Three short weeks after calling Stephen King’s The Wind through the Keyhole the best book you’re likely to see this year, I am forced to eat my words, and make the same ostentatious claim about Laurent Binet’s HHhH. It’s an awe-inspiring debut, from a writer of enormous talent and immense potential. We can only hope that the story of Heydrich, Gabčík and Kubiš is not his only obsession, and that we will hear from him again soon.

AND 2012’S MOST DISAPPOINTING

2012 brought with it the realisation that I’m not getting any younger. With a full-time job and a three-year-old child, my reading time is limited. I don’t have to finish every book that I start, wasting countless hours or days trudging through a book I’m not enjoying because I feel I need to finish it. As a result I have abandoned more books in the past twelve months than in the previous twelve years combined. My most notable disappointment for the year, of all the books I finished, is listed below. Despite my less-than-glowing review, I’m excited by the prospect of James’ second novel, The Explorer, which is due to hit shelves in January.

THE TESTIMONY - James Smythe

THE TESTIMONY by James Smythe (Blue Door Books)

The Testimony has, at its core, a wonderful idea, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. James Smythe’s vision of a world on the brink is all the more frightening because of its plausibility and we get all-too-brief glimpses of what he is capable of as a writer throughout, particularly in the middle section of the novel. There are too many problems, and the book never quite achieves the level it should. A disappointment, but not a complete write-off: The Testimony fails to live up to this reader’s expectations, but it has served to put a potentially wonderful writer on my radar.

COMING SOON…

Expect more reviews and interviews in the coming months. I have already started into the pile of 2013 books that I’ve been collecting for the past few months, and there are some really exciting titles there. 2013 brings with it the prospect of new novels by Warren Ellis and Joe Hill, and two new works from Stephen King, including a sequel to one of his most enduring novels. It’s going to be a busy year, and I expect to have even more trouble selecting a Top Ten than I did this year.

All that remains is for me to thank the publishers and publicists who continue to send me books in return for an honest review and who, in doing so, ensure that I’m continually reading outside my comfort zone. I’d like to thank the authors who have taken the time to answer questions or provide guest posts. And, most importantly, thanks to my readers and visitors, without whom I would just be talking to myself. I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and a safe and prosperous 2013.

A COLD SEASON by Alison Littlewood

a-cold-season1 A COLD SEASON

Alison Littlewood (www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk)

Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)

[Also published as a signed limited edition hardcover by PS Publishing (www.pspublishing.co.uk)]

£7.99

Following the death of her husband in Afghanistan, Cass decides to start anew. Packing up her son, Ben, she heads for the small village of Darnshaw, nestled in the Yorkshire Moors, where she has rented an apartment in the recently-refurbished mill. As they settle in, the snows start to fall and Cass, now trapped, discovers she may not be as welcome as she had hoped; there is something not quite right with this community. As Ben grows more distant and becomes abusive, she discovers that normality exists in the form of Mr Remick, the stand-in headmaster at Ben’s school, a man for whose charms she quickly falls. Isolated and alienated, Cass quickly realises that the move to Darnshaw may not have been the best idea, but with the weather closing in, the roads impassable and the phone lines down, there isn’t much she can do.

How do you measure the success of a good horror novel? For me, it’s not in nightmares, or in hours of lost sleep, but in whether I need to turn on all the lights to walk around the house at night. I like my horror to be subtle, creepy and insinuating, from the school of so-called “quiet horror”. A Cold Season, Alison Littlewood’s first novel, is most definitely “quiet”. As we arrive in Darnshaw with Cass and Ben, there is an immediate sense of wrongness, nothing that we can put a finger on, but something slightly odd all the same. Littlewood builds on this feeling and, as the snow falls and the chances of leaving the village rapidly evaporate, there is a sense of claustrophobia that, when coupled with little details – the downstairs apartment with no windows, for example, and the dolls lying in the dust of that apartment’s floor; the build-up of newspapers under the door of the supposedly empty apartment across the corridor from her own – leave the reader feeling uncomfortable and on edge.

In Cass, Littlewood has created the perfect heroine: a woman with a troubled past trying to do the best for her son in extenuating circumstances. Most of the women in the village seem to take an instant dislike to her, seemingly jealous of her fast friendship with Mr Remick. Cryptic messages from the elderly Bert, and the increasingly odd behaviour of her son are early indications for the reader that all is not well in the village of Darnshaw, while Cass continues to convince herself that nothing is amiss and that her son’s odd behaviour is down to a combination of the loss of his father, and the bad crowd into which he seems to have fallen.

It is easy to see Littlewood’s influences as the novel progresses: there is a Stepford Wives vibe here in the attitudes of the local women towards Cass, and something of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos in the behaviour of the village children. There are also more-obvious homages to at least two other classics of horror fiction, but the mere mention of their titles would constitute massive spoilers. A Cold Season is as beautifully-constructed as any of them, and is a wonderful addition to a fine tradition of horror writing. The old-fashioned feel is helped along by the lack of mobile phones – surely the bane of every horror and thriller writer producing fiction set in the modern world; the remote location and the bad weather conspire to ensure that there is no mobile phone signal, and we suddenly find ourselves in a different time, playing by different rules. It’s also worth pointing out that what Stephen King’s IT did for clowns, and countless books and films over the years have done for porcelain dolls, A Cold Season does for snowmen in a scene that, taken by itself, is worth the price of admission.

Littlewood’s first novel is an assured and finely-crafted piece of work, probably the best horror debut since Joe Hill’s 2007 novel, Heart-Shaped Box. It brings the promised scares without resort to nasty tricks or gore, and proves that it is still possible to write engaging, entertaining horror fiction without zombies or vampires. Earlier I wondered how you measure the success of a good horror novel. I’m not ashamed to admit that our house has been lit up like a Christmas tree for most of the past week; it’s a rare novel these days that can bring the creep factor to a hardened horror fan like me, but this succeeds admirably where so many others have failed. If you are in any way a fan of horror fiction, and have not yet done so, you need to read A Cold Season. Just make sure you know where the light switches are.

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