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An Interview with OWEN LAUKKANEN

OwenLaukkanen Name: OWEN LAUKKANEN

Author of: THE PROFESSIONALS (2014)
                 CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE (2014)
                 KILL FEE (2015)
                 THE STOLEN ONES (Forthcoming, May 2015)

Owen Laukkanen graduated from the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing program before spending three years as a reporter in the world of professional poker. He lives in Vancouver, where he writes the successful Stevens and Windermere series.

Thank you, Owen, for taking the time to chat with us.

My pleasure! Thanks very much for having me.

The Stevens and Windermere books are set in and around Minnesota’s Twin Cities. It seems an odd location, not as instantly-recognisable as, say, New York or Los Angeles, especially to us non-Americans. What’s the logic behind the setting and why choose it over those other places, or even your native Vancouver?

There’s kind of a funny story about how the books came to be set in Minnesota, which was not something I’d planned to do. I’d spent very little time in the Twin Cities before I wrote The Professionals, so I was really unprepared to have to go back and set a series there.

I’m one of those writers who doesn’t think before he types, which is to say, I like to start with a character and a crime and let the story unfold as it wants to. The Professionals is about a group of nomadic kidnappers, and I started the book somewhat arbitrarily in Chicago.

Being nomadic, they needed somewhere to go from the Windy City, and I (again, pretty arbitrarily), sent them north to Minnesota, whereupon I needed some law enforcement to act as foils for the group, and voila, in came Stevens and Windermere.

I’d really intended for the kidnappers to be the main characters of the book, and it wasn’t until the book was finished that my American publisher broached the idea of creating a series around Stevens and Windermere, and I found myself suddenly having to do a lot of research about the Twin Cities as I prepared to write the second, and later books.

That said, I feel pretty lucky to have happened into this Minnesota locale, as it gives me plenty of excuses to visit Minneapolis and Saint Paul, both of which are wonderful. And the state as a whole is a lot like Canada, where I’m from, so it’s not an entirely alien place to be writing about.

As far as setting a book in Vancouver, or anywhere in Canada, I confess to being a little bit of a mercenary. Put plain, books set in Canada don’t seem to sell very well, internationally or at home. There’s a notion that in order to succeed in Canada as an artist, you have to be seen to have succeeded in America, and I wanted to reach as wide a readership as I could.

I’ve spent enough time in the United States that I feel I can write about it credibly, but I do sometimes think wistfully about setting something in Vancouver, which is certainly rife with its own criminal possibilities.

In the early books of the series, at least, Kirk and Carla aren’t your average police procedural partners, given that they work for different agencies (Stevens for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension; Windermere for the FBI). The job titles inform a lot of the dynamics between the pair. How did the relationship develop as you began writing the series, and did you have a specific goal in separating the pair?

Essentially, the relationship developed out of jurisdictional necessity. Stevens is a state policeman, and I imagined that he would be the first agent called to deal with The Professionals’ band of kidnappers, but I knew he would need FBI help.

As I said, I initially intended for the pair to act as foils for my criminal protagonists, so I didn’t give very much thought to their relationship at first. In fact, I think Windermere is a little one-dimensional in the first book, as I figured she would be more of a plot device than a main character.

It was really a lot of fun to go back and explore their relationship, and especially Windermere as a character, in the second book, Criminal Enterprise, though obviously it’s difficult to keep coming up with reasons that an FBI agent and a state policeman would work together on multiple cases. I think I’ve come up with a workable long-term solution by now, but it’s been something of a challenge to keep them together without straining credibility too much.

Speaking of dynamics: the sexual tension between this pair is palpable from the outset; despite this, the relationship remains (reasonably) professional throughout. Do you feel that the sexual tension is necessary, or important, in helping you develop the characters?

That’s a good question, and it’s certainly something that readers seem to have strong feelings about, one way or the other! I think the sexual tension served a purpose, especially in the early books, as it helped to flesh out the characters and give them lives outside of the investigation they were conducting.

Obviously, characters are more interesting to read about when they’re fully realized and have relatable wants and needs, and I think it’s easier to make a bad guy into a compelling character, simply by virtue of their reasons for committing crimes. I wanted to give the reader a reason to tune into the police chapters, too, and sexual tension seemed like a pretty straightforward way of making them interesting.

That said, readers do tend to take sides, and I’ve received more than a few emails asking when Stevens and Windermere will finally hook up, or begging me to cut the tension out entirely so Stevens can focus on his wife. I think as the series moves on and the characters grow and develop a bit more, the romantic element might wax and wane, but I do think it’s been useful.

You’ve written (or, at the very least, published here in the UK) the first four books of the Stevens and Windermere series in fairly rapid succession. Do you have plans for future volumes in the series, or any plans to write non-series books?

I do! At present, I’m revising the fifth book in the series, which will come out in North America in 2016, and I’m under contract for a sixth book as well. The fifth one is quite dark; the series seems to be getting darker as I go, but I think it might be the best book of the lot.

And I actually have a young adult novel coming out under a pen name very soon! It’s called HOW TO WIN AT HIGH SCHOOL and is written by “Owen Matthews,” and comes out in North America on March 3rd. I have no big plans to jump ship to the YA side of things completely, but it was really fun to work on something completely different. It’s actually the first novel I ever wrote, when I was about nineteen or twenty, and I kept it in the proverbial drawer for a decade or so before dusting it off and realizing it wasn’t as embarrassing as I might have feared.

My real dream, though, is to write a series of nautical adventure novels, and I’m tinkering with the first one right now, though finding time has been difficult with the Stevens and Windermere series, and this YA novel.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

I remember reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in high school and really admiring the language and the imagery it evoked, and wishing I could create something so vivid and alive. I think that’s the book that first made me want to be a writer.

I probably tend to hew closer to the James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard models, with their short, punchy sentences and minimal description. Bret Easton Ellis is another writer whose minimalist style I admire, though I find the content kind of hit-or-miss.

And I was lucky enough to have one of my all-time favourite authors, a Cherokee-Canadian writer named Thomas King, as a creative writing professor in university. He’s probably been the most influential, just as far as the technical aspect of writing is concerned. He taught me how to look critically at my own work and to cut, cut, cut anything that doesn’t serve the story, which is invaluable knowledge for any writer.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

I find that the writers I admire most are those who can seemingly pull beautiful, evocative, lyrical sentences out of thin air. I’m not one for much description in my writing, in part because whenever I try to wax rhapsodic about anything, it comes off as purple and overwrought.

But I really envy writers like Michael Chabon, Raymond Chandler, Patrick DeWitt and Amor Towles (among many, many others) for the beauty of their prose, where my own work, in comparison, serves a rather more workmanlike function.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Owen Laukkanen look like?

Typically, a day in my life involves a lot of procrastination! I work five days a week, Monday through Friday, and I try to get about five thousand words written each day, which allows me to get a first draft of a novel hammered out in about four to six weeks. Mind, they’re not particularly good words, but at the very least, I get a draft out and then can settle into the more difficult task of editing my pile of words into something resembling a novel.

Last September, my girlfriend and I adopted a puppy, a year-old rescue pitbull named Lucy, and as my girlfriend works a normal job, it usually falls to me to keep the puppy occupied. So I take the dog for a long walk along the ocean in the morning, and in the afternoon, I write while the dog sleeps it off. If I time it right, I can get the five thousand words in before the dog wakes up and demands her evening walk.

That said, I do find it a little tough writing when there’s a giant mass of sleeping dog cuddled up against me, or better yet, wanting to play. I generally can’t resist her, so the writing is coming a little slower as of late!

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

My main advice is to finish the damn draft. In my experience, there are a lot of aspiring writers out there who spend their time tinkering with the first ten chapters of their novel, but whose desire to get the beginning perfect prevents them from actually finishing the thing.

I’m a huge advocate of giving yourself permission to write an absolutely horrible first draft, because then at the very least you have a novel with a beginning, middle and end, and you can then set about revising it into something publishable. But if you’re stuck with the first thirty pages of something, no matter how beautifully written, you’ll never get your book published. So my main piece of advice is to write a first draft, no matter how awful.

My second piece of advice is to learn how to edit your own work as critically as you would your worst enemy’s, and to pick out and cut anything extraneous from your text. This often requires a lot of holding one’s nose, as it’s painful to cut out wonderfully written passages that do absolutely nothing to further your plot, but the sooner you learn to do this, the better.

If you can identify the flaws in your own work and learn to correct them, you’re miles ahead of the game.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I’m reading a novel called Where All Light Tends To Go, by an American author named David Joy. It’s partly for business and partly for pleasure, as he and I share an American publisher and will be doing a couple of events together when The Stolen Ones, my fourth, comes out in March.

The publisher sent me a galley of his book, and so far it’s really good, unflinching rural noir. I’d have read the book even if I’d have had to pay for it, so I’m doubly lucky.

If the Stevens and Windermere should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

Oh man, this is a question I’ve been asked a fair bit, and I never have any good answers for it. I like Aisha Tyler (from Archer) or Zoe Saldana for Windermere, but for Stevens, I’m lost. As for directors, The Professionals was influenced to a pretty major extent by Michael Mann’s Heat, and I would go nuts if he ever got his hands on a Professionals script.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Oh, good question, and impossible to narrow down. I’d like to have a beer with John Steinbeck, preferably on the docks in Monterey, and since my tastes skew to the nautical, I also wouldn’t pass up a drink with Herman Melville or Joseph Conrad, either.

I also confess a weakness for, ahem, British theatre of the late 19th century, so I would happily drink with Oscar Wilde and/or George Bernard Shaw, as well. In all of the above instances, the drink would be alcoholic, and my contribution to the discussion would mostly be my attempting to avoid saying anything foolish, which actually sums up most of my interactions with other people, be they literary titans or otherwise.

Thank you once again, Owen, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

Thanks again for having me! This was a lot of fun.

KILL FEE by Owen Laukkanen

KILL FEE - Owen Laukkanen KILL FEE

Owen Laukkanen (owenlaukkanen.com)

Corvus (atlantic-books.co.uk)

7.99

The billionaire picked a heck of a day to die.

One of Minnesota’s richest men is gunned down in the driveway of the Saint Paul Hotel, in downtown Saint Paul, less than a hundred yards from where Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere are sitting on a bench, enjoying a sunny April Saturday. The shooter escapes, but not before Stevens and Windermere see his face, and the emptiness in his eyes. Working together, and with the resources of the FBI behind them, the pair soon track the shooter, as he prepares to kill again in Windermere’s old stomping ground, Miami. As the body count mounts, and the FBI fail to find anything linking the victims, they discover the existence of Killswitch, a highly-secure and well-hidden website that allows people to purchase assassinations and that seems to be operating under the auspices of the Department of Defence. Working in the dark, and against the clock, Stevens and Windermere must find the owner of Killswitch before he can accept any more commissions.

Owen Laukkanen’s detective duo – Minnesota BCA’s Kirk Stevens and the FBI’s Carla Windermere – return for their third outing in Kill Fee. One of the problems Laukkanen was always going to face with this teaming was the plausibility of having them work together on a long succession of cases. This is a problem he solves for the longer term as the novel comes to a close, but for this outing, placing them at the scene of the crime effectively side-steps any problems he might have had, and makes their involvement, and their partnership, seem completely natural.

As with previous outings, Kill Fee is told from multiple points of view as the story progresses, including those of the story’s criminal elements. The plot device – the murder-for-hire website – is an update of the age-old hitman storyline that feels like it might have been plucked from today’s headlines. What makes it all the more believable is Parkerson, the man behind it, who comes across as an ordinary everyday businessman who runs the website on the side as a way of generating some extra cash, in the same way that he might sell his IT skills, or his family hierlooms on eBay.

Following the Saint Paul hit, and the identification of his killer, there is a subtle shift in Parkerson’s fortunes. As we watch his world slowly crumbling around him, and get to know more about the man behind Killswitch, we are forced to question how well we know those people who are closest to us. As with both Arthur Pender (The Professionals) and Carter Tomlin (Criminal Enterprise), Parkerson is the man next door, a theme that serves to ground this series of novels in reality and gives the reader a more immediate sense of danger as the story moves towards its climax.

Back in the driving seat once again are Stevens and Windermere, the unlikely team who nevertheless work so well together. The relationship has evolved somewhat since we first met them in The Professionals, though some things remain a constant: the sexual tension continues, though here it serves a more obvious purpose than in the previous two books. Here Kirk has some competition for Carla’s affections in the form of Derek Mathers, her young, good-looking FBI partner and this leads to a number of standoffs between the three characters. As the novel comes to a close, there is a feeling that this irritant, which serves mainly to distract from the central plot, may finally have been put to bed (pardon the pun), leaving room for a bit less teenage angst in the coming books of the series.

As the characters develop, Laukkanen’s work goes from strength to strength, his unusual pairing – characters who feel a little bit more alive and real with each passing novel – and uncommon setting making the Stevens and Windermere series something of a breath of fresh air in an otherwise crowded genre. By turns funny and tense, Kill Fee is an excellent addition to an already-excellent new series. Relatable characters combined with a plausible and well-constructed plot make this a fun and satisfying read that is perfect for anyone who claims to enjoy a good crime novel. Kill Fee puts Owen Laukkanen firmly on my must-read list and I’m already counting down to the arrival of the series’ fourth book later this year.

THE PROFESSIONALS by Owen Laukkanen

THE PROFESSIONALS - Owen Laukkanen THE PROFESSIONALS

Owen Laukkanen (owenlaukkanen.com)

Corvus (atlantic-books.co.uk)

£7.99

In the beginning, the whole thing had been Marie’s idea. It had started as a joke, some throwaway line spouted off one rainy night in Seattle, the gang holed up at Sawyer’s place bitching about the job market over cheap beer and pizza, scholarships almost gone and graduation upon them, nobody but Mouse with a future to speak of.

Arthur Pender and his friends have finished college, graduating with degrees that are practically useless in a dead job market. When one of them suggests, as a joke, that they turn to robbing banks or kidnapping, Pender sees a plan that could work: kidnap someone rich, ask for a paltry ransom, say $60,000 – almost guaranteeing that he won’t go to the police on his release – and move to another city immediately after the job. It’s a plan that has worked well for almost two years, until they pick the wrong man. Now, with the FBI and the Mafia on their tail, Pender and his friends need to find a way out of the country without getting themselves caught or killed.

From the first page, where we watch Pender’s crew perform a well-oiled kidnap routine, Owen Laukkanen’s debut novel, The Professionals, has the reader by the throat. The plan that Pender has put in place is surprising because of its originality, a concept that shines throughout this beautiful little thriller. What is, perhaps, most surprising of all, is the fact that we identify so readily with Pender and his group of friends. There’s something about them that puts us firmly in their camp, that makes us want them to succeed, despite the multiple crimes they have committed over the course of two years; The Professionals is, in some ways, a modern day reworking of Robin Hood, without the "give to the poor" part, and the Robin Hood character (in this case, Pender) is the man around whom the whole story revolves.

Laukkanen’s debut is, ostensibly, the first in the Stevens and Windermere series (the second book due later this year, and the third and fourth instalments currently works in progress) but, because of the focus on the "bad guys’, it feels more like a standalone thriller that has the occasional appearance from a pair of quirky cops. Kirk Stevens is a member of Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and is the first person to put together a string of separate incidents and identify them as the work of a serial kidnapper. When he realises that the crimes cross state lines, he is only too happy to hand the case off to the FBI, in the form of young agent Carla Windermere, who, in turn, is only too happy to keep Stevens involved. The pair work well together, and are a joy to watch in action, despite the slightly heavy-handed attempt at sexual tension which, thankfully, doesn’t get too much airtime.

Pender and gang have more to worry about than the FBI, in the blocky form of D’Antonio, a man who, at first glance, appears to be a stereotypical piece of Mafia beef, but who turns out to be a man of some intelligence and heart. His backstory – that of a long-serving Mafia enforcer – isn’t touched on, but it’s a story we’re all familiar with from watching the Godfather films, or The Sopranos, and Laukkanen does an excellent job of endowing him with a sense of barely-restrained violence that makes him at least as interesting as the other characters in the book.

I have no idea why, but there are portions of the book that remind me of Steven Spielberg’s early directorial effort, The Sugarland Express, though there are barely any points of similarity between the two. There’s something very laid-back about this novel, despite the frantic pace at which the action moves, and it serves to set The Professionals apart from other novels in the genre, raising it above the category of just another buddy-cop story or chase novel, to that rare category of "something you’ve never seen before". Make no mistake, regardless of how this book is marketed, or how the series progresses, this is the story of Arthur Pender and his friends; they are the people we’re rooting for, the antiheroes of this piece. Which is not to say that Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere don’t have what it takes to carry a series, but to me it feels more like a spin-off (think Sam & Twitch) than something that was planned that way.

With a plot that moves at a breakneck speed, and characters – good, bad and elsewhere along the spectrum of grey – that are engaging, likeable and, best of all, human, Owen Laukkanen has burst onto the scene with one of the finest thrillers you’re likely to encounter this year. I do have a couple of minor niggles with some of the directions the plot takes, but I’m putting it down to the pressure under which the characters are operating, and dismissing them as not overly important to the overall direction in which the story goes. It’s a smart and violent story that grabs the reader from the first page to the last, and it makes this reader, at the very least, excited for what is still to come. For now, I can only recommend that you get in on the ground floor, and enjoy.

EAST OF INNOCENCE by David Thorne

East-of-Innocence - David Thorne EAST OF INNOCENCE

David Thorne

Corvus (atlantic-books.co.uk)

£12.99

It’s an old joke, well-worn. What’s the difference between God and a lawyer? The man sitting across the desk from me, eyes fixed on my face, doesn’t look like he’d appreciate the punch line.

Daniel Connell, son of an Essex hard-man, is a big-time lawyer fallen on hard times. Following a disagreement with one of the partners at the high-powered law firm where he worked, the hulking Connell finds himself back in the town where he grew up, practicing a variety of law that is very different to the cases he was used to in the City. Terry Campion, policeman and client, turns up at Daniel’s office, beaten and bruised, and hands him a collection of discs. Terry has been beaten by a group of fellow policemen, and the discs contain video evidence of the assault. Unknown to Terry, they also contain something a lot more valuable to his attackers, and to the family of young Rosie O’Shaughnessy, missing presumed dead. Daniel’s other case, Billy Morrison’s injury in a hit and run accident, turns out to be less accidental than Billy might like to believe, and brings Connell in contact with local crime boss, Vincent Halliday who, with an offhand remark, begins Connell’s search for his mother, a woman he believes walked out on him and his father when he was only a few days old. Making no friends, and facing violence at every turn, Connell sets out to find his missing mother, and to seek the downfall of Baldwin, the psychotic policeman whose assault on Terry Campion is the least of his crimes, and of Vincent Halliday, whose decision thirty-seven years earlier sealed the course of Daniel’s life of abuse and terror at the hands of his father.

Connell’s career choice is, interestingly, what sets David Thorne’s debut novel aside from many others in a similar genre. He isn’t a policeman, not a private detective. And yet, his role as lawyer, and the community in which he practices, combine to make him a sort of everyman who has the habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time (for him; for us readers, it’s perfect, a mystery thriller with a hint of a difference). Connell is a big man, and as we learn about his background, it becomes clear that the choice of law probably surprised many of the people who knew him. Even now, at thirty-seven years old, Connell is introduced (and, on more than one occasion, introduces himself) not as "Daniel Connell", but as "Frankie’s boy", which tells both the person to whom he is being introduced, and the reader, all we need to know about Daniel and his father, and the kinds of circles in which they move.

Connell is instantly likeable (quite a feat for a lawyer, if you follow the joke that opens the novel to its logical conclusion), a decent, honest and surprisingly gentle man in the body of a giant thug.  His search for his mother, at times irritating, as it takes away from the action/thriller-based subplots, becomes key to the novel as we realise just how well this man has turned out under the circumstances, and how much better things might have been for him under the care of a much more caring parent. Connell’s father is a nasty and abusive alcoholic, a man who revels in handing out punishment, even to the giant that his son has become.

The people who surround Connell are as well-drawn as the central character, and Thorne spends considerable time evoking the small Essex town where these people live and do business. Connell’s best friend is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, a man considerably changed since his return from war less one leg; Vincent Halliday comes across as the typical East End gangster, an unpleasant man – getting on in years – who relies on hired muscle to do his dirty work; and Baldwin, a police officer who has taken the power and authority of the office to the extreme, a man who sees himself as above the law, and who will stop at nothing when he feels that his position is in danger.

Baldwin smiled reasonably. ‘If you don’t tell me,’ he said, ‘I’m going to cut your finger off.’  He raised his eyebrows, as if a thought had just struck him. ‘On that bandsaw.’

In Baldwin, Thorne has created one of the most morally reprehensible figures in British crime fiction, a man the reader loves to hate, but one so charismatic, so utterly evil, that he still manages to steal every single scene of which he is a part.

Connell tells the story in a well-developed voice, in a present tense which lends some immediacy to the proceedings. There are moments of sheer horror with darkly humorous interludes, and even some genuinely touching moments as we follow Daniel on his quest to locate his lost childhood. He’s a quick-witted and sharp-tongued protagonist who makes an instant impression on anyone he meets, including the reader.

‘Look,’ I say. ‘This is my office. I have client confidentialities to respect, other cases to take care of. No offence, but it’s going to be hard to do that with some hired goon standing in the corner.’ Eddie frowns. ‘By hired good, Eddie, I mean you.’

East of Innocence is the first novel from a talented writer who cut his teeth on TV and radio comedy. His origins definitely shine through in the novel, despite its dark tone and subject matter – Daniel Connell is a witty and intelligent man, and we like him almost instantly upon meeting him. By turns gruesome, touching, violent, funny, East of Innocence is never less than engaging and always unpredictable. It’s a wonderfully written example of gritty British crime drama that we’re as likely as not to see on our TV screens in the near future, peopled with strong and engaging characters, most notably the story’s central character who is more than capable of carrying a series of books, if Thorne can find a way to keep each entry fresh and interesting. His debut is definitely a winner.

The 2013 Round-Up

And so, once more, to the end of the year and the requisite retrospective of my reading habits over the past twelve months here at Reader Dad. Regular visitors and Twitter followers will know that 2013 has been a year full of ups and downs (more downs, unfortunately, than ups) for me, what with five weeks of hospitalisation, two long bouts of antibiotic treatment and the complications and endless hospital appointments that come as part and parcel of such serious illness. Of course, the ups more than make up for the downs: on May 4th my partner and I became husband in wife in a beautiful, intimate ceremony in the House at the Stone Bell on the eastern edge of Prague’s beautiful Old Town Square.

If nothing else, long months of inactivity, not to mention the clock-watching existence that comes with lying in a hospital bed, gave me plenty of time to read, though not necessarily, to my unending shame, the time or opportunity to review every book I’ve read this year. And 2013 has certainly been a bumper year for great books, so much so that I was unable to get my favourites of the year down below the twenty mark, so I’ve opted for a slightly different approach to my favourites list, as you’ll see below. But first,

THE ROUND-UP

With one week left of my reading year, I’m currently working through book number 73, a number that leaves previous years in the dust. A massive 41 of these books are by authors that I have never read before, including 20 debuts. The others are mostly old favourites (four Stephen King books, another of Richard Stark’s wonderful Parker novels, the third part of George R. R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire and the latest massive tome from Dan Simmons, to name but a few). The list includes only five translations this year, which is a huge drop on previous years. Genre boundaries have been much more difficult to define than in previous years, but the trend towards darkness continues.

2013 saw further expansion of the blog, with a number of nice milestones achieved, including the publication of our 100th post (and, indeed, our 100th review). This year also saw a number of competitions hosted on the blog, as well as further guest posts and author interviews. It also saw the first Reader Dad quote on a book that we’ve reviewed (perhaps my proudest moment) – the paperback edition of Craig Robertson’s Cold Grave – and also my first “glossy” quote, on the back cover of Jens Lapidus’ Easy Money. Reader Dad was also invited, by the lovely people at Hodderscape, to take part in their Review Project, which has given me the chance to read (and in one notable case, re-read) some classics of the various speculative fiction genres, a chance for which I am eternally grateful.

And with that, we come to the important part: my favourite books of the year. As I mentioned before, it has been a bumper year for great books, and when I went through the list I discovered that I couldn’t get my list of favourites down below twenty, so I’ve taken a slightly different approach this year: two lists, the first my favourite debuts of the year; the second my favourite books by established authors. As always, there will be a few more than ten in each list. This year I realised that if I’m not enjoying a book I should probably not read it through to the end. As a result I have, for the first time, maintained a list of abandoned books (there were 12) and, because of this, you won’t find a “most disappointing” entry this year, because all the disappointing ones ended up on that list. The usual criteria for these lists apply: for the book to be on the list, its first official publication date must have been between 1 January  and 31 December 2013. The lists are presented in reading order. Links, as always, will take you to my original review, where it exists.

MATT’S TOP 10 DEBUTS OF 2013

LEWIS WINTER - Malcolm Mackay THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER by Malcolm Mackay (Mantle)

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is something new and exciting. It is a crime novel to savour, a wonderful piece of fiction to settle down with and finish in as few sittings as possible. The voice takes a bit of getting used to, that pally, chatty approach to storytelling that Mackay has down to perfection, but a couple of chapters in it seems the most natural thing in the world. A well-constructed and well-paced plot and an engaging narrator combine to keep the reader hooked from early on. Quite possibly the best crime debut of the decade so far, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is not to be missed and marks Malcolm Mackay as a writer to watch in the near future.

   
Calamity Leek - Paula Lichtarowicz THE FIRST BOOK OF CALAMITY LEEK by Paula Lichtarowicz (Hutchinson)

With shades of The Truman Show and Emma Donoghue’s excellent Room, Paula Lichtarowicz’s debut novel nevertheless manages to present a unique and fascinating scenario that could well be happening – to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy – anywhere in the world right now. Populated by fully-formed and interesting characters – a feat in itself, considering the size of the cast, and the similarities between many of those characters – The First Book of Calamity Leek is presented as a story within a story that uses the vagaries of language to present the reader with the truth of the situation while never revealing it to the story’s protagonist and narrator. Wonderful writing and clever plotting mark Paula Lichtarowicz as an author to watch in coming years and The First Book of Calamity Leek as one of the finest novels of the year so far. Despite the cover, the book has broad appeal, and should not be dismissed as the chick-lit that it might, at first, appear to be. Miss this one at your cost.

   
Hobbs-Ghostman GHOSTMAN by Roger Hobbs (Doubleday)

What’s on the cover, and what’s behind it are two completely different things with this novel. I picked it up expecting a Reacher-style adventure thriller. What I got was much better: an old-fashioned heist novel of the type at which the likes of Richard Stark and Lawrence Sanders excelled in their day. As we follow the narrator through double- and triple-cross, and learn what happened to the money, it quickly becomes clear that as well as being a beautifully-written and perfectly-plotted piece of crime fiction, it’s also a painstakingly-researched and detailed look at an entire class of global criminal enterprise. Cinematic in scope, it’s exactly what fans of the heist caper have been waiting for for years: a worthy successor to those giants of the post-pulp era who made the genre what it is. Not to be missed.

   
dreams-and-shadows-cargill DREAMS AND SHADOWS by C. Robert Cargill (Gollancz)

There are obvious comparisons to be made with the work of Neil Gaiman, and Cargill has a ready-made fan base in readers of Gaiman’s novels and comics. But this is no poor copy; Cargill’s fresh approach feels vibrant and engaging. It’s well-researched, creatures from a myriad of mythologies living together in uneasy truce, in fear of the Devil. The human characters – Ewan and Colby – take centre stage; this is their story, and Cargill is careful never to lose that fact in the midst of all the detail and the huge cast of characters. By turns dark, funny and touching, Dreams and Shadows is part modern fairy-tale – yes, Princess Bride fans, there is kissing – part horror, and part “urban fantasy”. It’s one of the best fantasy novels to see the light of day in some time, and there is at least one reader – yes, that would be me – already itching for the second part of the story.

   
THE ABOMINATION - Jonathan Holt THE ABOMINATION by Jonathan Holt (Head of Zeus)

One of the novels I, sadly, didn’t get around to reviewing this year is also one of my favourites. The first part of the Carnivia Trilogy, Holt shows us a dark and gruesome underside to the beautiful city of Venice and to the Catholic Church. Mixing the old world of the city with the future world of computers and virtual gaming, The Abomination presents and intriguing and enthralling mystery to the reader, and keeps it moving through the efforts of its trio of wonderful protagonists.

   
REVIVER - Seth Patrick REVIVER by Seth Patrick (Macmillan)

Crackling pace, believable science and characters worth spending some time with make Seth Patrick’s debut a must-read for fans of horror, crime, science fiction, noir. If you have ever enjoyed any of the myriad CSIs on television, or 2000AD’s Judge Anderson, then there is definitely something here for you. The ending, while wrapping up the events of the book, does leave plenty of room for a sequel, although Patrick has his work cut out for him following up Reviver. Without doubt, one of my favourite books of the year from an author whose novels are sure to become a regular feature on my bookshelves. You can’t afford to miss it.

   
The Silent Wife - ASA Harrison THE SILENT WIFE by A.S.A. Harrison (Headline)

A.S.A. Harrison sadly died shortly before the book’s UK publication. But what a legacy she has left behind in this single, wonderful novel that is sure to become a classic of the crime genre in years to come. There’s something distinctly pulp-noirish about the novel, something that would make it sit comfortably on a shelf beside Jim Thompson or Raymond Chandler. Beautifully-written and surprisingly engaging, The Silent Wife is a slow-burner that deserves the time it takes to get going. For me, it’s a surprise hit, and a book that I’ll be recommending for a long time to come. It’s just a shame we’re unlikely to see anything else like it.

   
MR PENUMBRA MR PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE by Robin Sloan (Atlantic)

Another favourite that I failed to review, Robin Sloan’s novel is part love letter to the written word (in all its forms) and part love letter to Google. It’s a beautifully-written and intensely satisfying puzzle that should be a must-read for fans of Neal Stephenson or William Gibson.

   
PLAN D - Simon Urban PLAN D by Simon Urban [tr: Katy Derbyshire] (Harvill Secker)

Simon Urban has created a believable world, a country living with ideals that are almost twenty-five years past their sell-by date, yet surviving nonetheless through sheer luck and the power of the secret police that lurk around every corner. It’s a realistic vision of what Berlin might have been like had the Wall still split the city in two. The inhabitants of this gloomy, greasy city with its pervasive smell of frying oil run the gamut from those happy with their lot, to those – like Wegener himself – who would bolt to the West given half a chance. It’s a gripping read, at times funny, at others quite sad, leaving the reader fearing for the future, not to mention the sanity, of the novel’s protagonist. Despite a distinctly noir feel, Plan D heralds a fresh new look at the European crime novel and plants Simon Urban firmly on the must-read list. This is my surprise hit of the year so far, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

   
YOUR BROTHERS BLOOD - David Towsey YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD by David Towsey (Jo Fletcher Books)

Beautifully written, Your Brother’s Blood is literary horror at its best. David Towsey aims not for cheap scares or toe-curling gore, but for an all-pervading sense of doom that grows as we progress through the narrative. A gripping storyline and characters about whom we care (whether we want to see them live, or die slow and horrible deaths) ensure that the reader will be drawn completely into this relatively short novel. An intense and timeless tale of family and love, it is a wonderful introduction to an extremely talented new voice in genre fiction, and a great start to what promises to be a future classic.

   
gigantic-beard-that-was-evil-stephen-collins-cape-01-540x755 THE GIGANTIC BEARD THAT WAS EVIL by Stephen Collins (Jonathan Cape)

Beautifully-written, beautifully-illustrated and in a beautifully-presented package from Jonathan Cape, Stephen Collins’ The Gigantic Beard that was Evil is a masterpiece, a work that deserves a place amongst the finest graphic novels ever produced. Don’t let the "graphic" aspect put you off this one; it’s as in-depth, intelligent and entertaining as any work of prose, and has the added benefit of making you want to go back and start again once you’ve reached the end. One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

MATT’S TOP 10 NON-DEBUTS OF 2013

GUN MACHINE - Warren Ellis GUN MACHINE by Warren Ellis (Mulholland Books)

Extremely smart, very funny and intensely dark in places, Gun Machine shows that Warren Ellis is as comfortable in this form of storytelling as he is in the form for which he is better known. In some ways it’s quite depressing: this is the first book I’ve read in 2013, and I’m finding it hard to envisage a better one this year. Unlike anything else you’ve read, Gun Machine is a quick (barely 300 pages) and action-packed read that will keep you hooked from that opening line. Outlandish but very believable, it’s an excellent place to get to know this fine writer and will leave you hoping for more. I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

   
THE EXPLORER - James Smythe THE EXPLORER by James Smythe (Harper Voyager)

Smythe’s second novel delivers on every level. It’s an intense and quietly horrific ride that keeps the reader hooked throughout. Literary science fiction that still manages to be cinematic in scope, The Explorer succeeds where The Testimony failed: it carries through on its early promises and presents a satisfying conclusion worthy of what has come before. Beautifully written and cleverly constructed, The Explorer establishes James Smythe as one of Britain’s best young writers. Don’t let the scifi tag deter you: what you’ll find behind that beautiful cover is a must-read for all lovers of great fiction.

   
NOS-4R211-669x1024 NOS4R2 by Joe Hill (Gollancz)

Joe Hill has been on this reader’s must-read list since discovering his short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts. His third novel,NOS4R2, is a genuinely frightening experience; Hill knows which buttons to press to get the reaction he wants, and takes great delight in their pressing. It is, for me, his best novel yet, the perfect combination of magical coming-of-age story and balls-to-the-wall horror-fest. You won’t look at Rolls-Royce in quite the same way again, and Charlie Manx is likely to haunt your dreams – especially if you have children of your own – for a very long time. Do yourself a favour and don’t miss it.

   
THE KILLING POOL - Kevin Sampson THE KILLING POOL by Kevin Sampson (Jonathan Cape)

The Killing Pool gives us a look at the unexpectedly dark underside of Liverpool through the eyes of the police and criminals that populate it. A noirish tale (Mersey Noir?), it entices the reader in with wonderful, stylish prose and engaging characters and ultimately leaves them reeling from a series of ever-more-shocking revelations. Like the drug users it portrays, it leaves us pining for more, stringing us along with the promise that this is only the first in a series of novels featuring Billy McCartney. Comparable to the aforementioned Peace and Ellroy (though with a much less abrupt writing style than either), The Killing Pool should appeal to fans of both, and to anyone who enjoys their crime fiction dark, ambiguous and surprising. Kevin Sampson has, quite simply, nailed it, producing if not the best, then certainly the most original piece of crime fiction so far this year.

   
Red Moon - Benjamin Percy RED MOON by Benjamin Percy (Hodder & Stoughton)

In some ways, what Percy has set out to do for werewolves feels a bit like what Justin Cronin did a few years back for vampires. What he has accomplished is a fine addition to the genre, a novel that breathes new life into an old trope and makes us want to immerse ourselves in this new world. Despite the budding romance between the two central characters, there are no sparkles here, nothing to interest the Twilight crowd. A modern-day parable (though I’ll be damned if I can work out what the moral is), this beautifully-written and captivating novel deserves a place on the shelves of anyone who calls themselves a fan of horror. We can only hope that the wide-open ending bodes well for further volumes in the series.

   
THE SHINING GIRLS - Lauren Beukes THE SHINING GIRLS by Lauren Beukes (HarperCollins)

Best known in certain circles for her niche novels, Moxyland and Zoo City, Beukes finally stretches her wings for what should be her breakout work. The result is one of the best novels you’re likely to read this year, in any genre. Careful plotting combined with pitch-perfect characterisation, edge-of-the-seat tension and the feeling that anything could happen next (or, in fact, may well have happened already) combine to keep the reader turning pages long past bedtime, or their bus stop, or…well, you get the idea. The Shining Girls has been one of my most anticipated novels of the year so far. It’s definitely one that has been worth the wait. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

   
JOYLAND - Stephen King JOYLAND by Stephen King (Titan Books / Hard Case Crime)

Love lost, love found, friendships forged. Ghosts and murdered girls.The carnival atmosphere of amusement parks in the summer. Many of these are not what we expect from Hard Case Crime. Many of them we don’t even expect from Stephen King. What Joyland is, then, is sheer delight, a slim but beautiful novel from one of the – if not the – greatest writers of his generation, and an unexpected treasure in a body of work spanning almost four decades. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: no-one tells a story quite like Stephen King. Joyland should be top of your list of must-read books this year.

   
DOCTOR SLEEP - Stephen King DOCTOR SLEEP by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

Late last week I found myself wondering how to sum up one of the greatest horror novels ever written. This week, I discover that my job was easy when compared to the question how do you follow one of the greatest horror novels ever written?  With books like this, especially when the original is such a well-known and well-loved piece of work, there is always the potential for disaster. Far from that, Doctor Sleep is the perfect follow-up to the story that began with Jack Torrance’s interview for the position of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. It is the perfect complement to The Shining, expanding the legend that King created back in 1977, and adding a host of new ideas to the mix. In answering the question of what Danny Torrance is up to now, King has finally completed the wider story of the Torrance family that The Shining, to a certain degree, left hanging, and has gone some way towards laying to rest the restive ghost of Jack Torrance through the actions of his son (for if the son bears the sins of the father, surely any reparations made should be paid backwards). Do you need to read (or re-read, for that matter) The Shining before you start in on Doctor Sleep? Technically, no. King has crafted a novel that stands well in its own right, giving brief glimpses into the events at the Overlook when required. But, as with all these things, going into Doctor Sleep with the story of Jack’s descent into madness fresh in your mind adds an extra level of enjoyment to the story. In either case, Doctor Sleep is a must-read and should prove, in particular, a comfortable re-start point for fans who may not have been keeping up with the author’s recent output. One of my books of the year, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

   
THE VIOLENT CENTURY - Lavie Tidhar THE VIOLENT CENTURY by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)

Lavie Tidhar is rapidly becoming one of the most important writers of speculative fiction today. The Violent Century is the work of a writer with talent and confidence to burn. Unlike anything else you’ve ever read, its combination of spy thriller and superhero adventure make for an unusual, but inspired, combination. It’s a wonderful, engaging and thought-provoking novel, written with a style as original as the story itself, and presented by Hodder in a beautiful package that will be hard to resist, even for the most casual collector. Quite simply: perfect!

   
The Abominable - Dan Simmons THE ABOMINABLE by Dan Simmons (Sphere)

Part historical fact, part thrilling boys’ adventure tale, Dan Simmons’ latest novel takes us to the top of the world, and keeps us on the edge of our seats for the whole journey. Cold and atmospheric, peopled with the type of characters that you want to spend as much time with as possible, The Abominable is an intelligent thrill-ride of epic proportions. The perfect companion piece to Simmons’ 2007 novel, The Terror, it serves to remind the reader of one important fact: regardless of genre – and he’s tried quite a few – Dan Simmons is still one of the finest purveyors of fiction living today. If you’ve yet to try his work, this is the perfect starting place.

   
saveyourselfkellybraffet SAVE YOURSELF by Kelly Braffet (Corvus)

Beautiful and elegant, Save Yourself is one of the darkest books I’ve had the pleasure to read this year. Braffet is a skilled writer who manages to draw the reader into her world without ever showing her full hand. It builds slowly to a shocking climax that, despite the inherent faults of the people involved, still manages to touch us, and gives us plenty of food for thought. This is one of this year’s quiet winners, a book that seems to be huge across the Atlantic but which has yet to find its audience here in the UK. It’s only a matter of time. Kelly Braffet, rising star, is definitely one to watch for the future and, if you haven’t read it yet, Save Yourself should be on your list of books to read in the New Year.

   
OCEAN - GAiman

Language_of_Dying1-637x1024

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman (Headline)

THE LANGUAGE OF DYING  by Sarah Pinborough (Jo Fletcher Books)

Bundled together purely because I haven’t gotten around to writing reviews for them yet (expect them to appear at some point over the Christmas break), these books deserve all your attention. Beautiful and touching in their own ways, they’ll transport you from your everyday to somewhere new, though not necessarily better.

COMING SOON…

Stay tuned in 2014 for the usual mix of reviews, interviews and guest posts. Based on the books already piling up for January – March publication, it’s going to be a stellar year, with the final part of Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow Trilogy (The Sudden Arrival of Violence) and James Smythe’s follow-up to The Explorer (The Echo) two of the most notable books in that period, and at least one new Stephen King novel later in the year.

Thanks, as always, to the wonderful publishers and publicists who keep me stocked up with books (I could name them all, but this post has probably gone on long enough as it is; they all know who they are); to the fantastic authors who provide the reading material as well as the time and creative energy required to answer interview questions or write guest posts; and, most importantly, the visitors who keep coming back for more. Without you, I’d just be talking to myself, so it’s always good to have an audience. I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a safe and prosperous 2014.

SAVE YOURSELF by Kelly Braffet

SAVE YOURSELF - Kelly Braffet SAVE YOURSELF

Kelly Braffet (www.kellybraffet.com)

Corvus (atlantic-books.co.uk)

£12.99

When Patrick Cusimano’s father kills a child while driving drunk, Patrick calls the police. The "right thing", morally, isn’t necessarily the right thing for the Cusimano family, and Patrick’s older brother Mike resents him for it. Layla and Verna Elshere are the daughters of a preacher; Layla is the face of her father’s campaigns and she rebels as soon as she’s old enough to feel that she knows her own mind. Joining a gang of outsiders, Layla finds herself fascinated by Patrick Cusimano and his family, and feels the need to save her younger sister from the same fate that she, herself, has only recently escaped. As the different parts of Layla’s life intersect, guided by the charismatic Justinian, it becomes clear that the choices these people have made in the past, the choices that define the life they currently live, have massive – and potentially fatal – implications for their immediate futures.

Save Yourself is the third novel from rising US star Kelly Braffet. Small-town America has long provided rich pickings for storytellers of all types, and Braffet starts out on familiar ground: on the one hand we have the Cusimanos, a pair of brothers from the wrong side of the track, stuck in dead-end graveyard-shift jobs, heading for the same fate as their father: a life ruined by alcohol and inertia. On the other side of the tracks, the Elsheres, a man who runs his own church and uses his young daughters as the faces of his various campaigns. Until, of course, the inevitable rebellion, and acceptance of a lifestyle that is the polar opposite to the one they have been forced to live during their formative years, facilitated by Justinian and the small group of outsiders that he keeps close.

Dark and slow-moving, this is very much a character-driven piece, and Braffet shows a deft turn of hand in presenting these people to the reader, making them leap from the page, and building a complex set of relationships between them that lead, ultimately, to the gloriously noirish finale. Patrick, who turns his father in to the police and sleeps with his brother’s girlfriend, is the ultimate black sheep. He is well-matched, then, with Layla who is an outsider in her own family, and finds more comfort with the small group of likeminded people she calls friends. Fascinated by Patrick because of the family history, the relationship turns darkly sexual, adding to the burden that already weighs Patrick down. Verna, bullied at school by the same crowd that gave her older sister such a hard time, welcomes the relief that comes with abandoning the life she knows and following in her sister’s footsteps. And Justinian, hardly more than a teenager, but with a strange "pull" that gives him power over the small band of misfits that he believes are his own, the dark, demented puppet-master that seems to be pulling all the strings.

As the story progresses, and we see how these relationships play out, it becomes clear that Layla and Verna have gotten themselves mixed up in a cult of sorts; the sort of cult that nurtures school bombers and shooters. Once this becomes clear, things spiral quickly out of control, and the pace picks up into a headlong rush towards some inevitable final showdown. There are no heroes here, and while it’s difficult to like any of the characters, Braffet makes sure we know where our sympathies lie, so that we become completely engrossed in the story, and completely invested in following these people to whatever bitter end is in store for them.

Save Yourself is dark, but not heavy-going, despite the heavy themes it examines: alcoholism, depression, outsiders and cults. There are some startling parallels with father-in-law Stephen King’s debut novel, Carrie (minus the supernatural elements), in the themes Braffet examines. And anyone who has found themselves engrossed in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine or Gus van Sant’s beautiful 2003 film Elephant will revel in the deconstruction of the psychology of young people, and the examination of what causes them to snap and head off to school, or the mall, or the cinema with an automatic weapon in their backpack.

Beautiful and elegant, Save Yourself is one of the darkest books I’ve had the pleasure to read this year. Braffet is a skilled writer who manages to draw the reader into her world without ever showing her full hand. It builds slowly to a shocking climax that, despite the inherent faults of the people involved, still manages to touch us, and gives us plenty of food for thought. This is one of this year’s quiet winners, a book that seems to be huge across the Atlantic but which has yet to find its audience here in the UK. It’s only a matter of time. Kelly Braffet, rising star, is definitely one to watch for the future and, if you haven’t read it yet, Save Yourself should be on your list of books to read in the New Year.

NO WAY BACK by Matthew Klein

No-Way-Back-by-Matthew-Klein NO WAY BACK

Matthew Klein (matthewklein.org)

Corvus (corvus-books.co.uk)

£12.99

Jim Thane is a restart executive, a Silicon Valley veteran who specialises in taking on failing companies and turning them around, making them profitable. Jim’s latest assignment has taken him to the oppressive heat of Florida, where Tao Software needs his specialist skills. Within days, Jim has discovered that someone has been embezzling – to the tune of three million dollars – from the company, and that the previous CEO was involved with a very unsavoury crowd. Caught between the FBI and the Russian mob, Jim quickly discovers the real reason he was given this job and just how much danger comes as part of the package.

On Monday morning, at one minute past nine o’clock, I sit in a Florida parking lot counting cars.

It’s an old trick, the easiest way to take a company’s pulse: arrive at the beginning of the business day – on the dot – and see how many employees have bothered to show up. You can tell a lot about a company from its parking lot.

No Way Back has the feel of two different novels glued together in the middle. In this case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the transition from one to the other is much less jarring than that statement might lead you to believe. At the centre of the story is its narrator, Jim Thane, a Silicon Valley veteran who now specialises in rescuing or salvaging failing technology companies. When the story opens, Jim has been clean for two years, but spent most of the previous decade drinking, taking meth and paying high-class prostitutes for sex. Somewhere in that deep and distant past, a past of which he is now extremely ashamed, he was responsible for the death of his only son, who drowned in the bath whilst in Jim’s care. This tragedy has forced a wedge between Jim and his wife, and the tension between them is palpable in the numerous scenes they share.

The first half or so of the book concerns Jim’s efforts to turn Tao Software around. The company haven’t made any money for years, mainly because they have nothing to sell – their only product is very much still in development and no-one seems to have thought about how, or to whom, they might sell it anyway. Klein’s background in the industry provides him with plenty of material, and it’s often presented in a blackly humourous way that skewers both the industry and the individuals that work within it. As someone who has been making a living in software development for close to fifteen years, I found it cut very close to the bone, at once perfectly accurate and laugh-out-loud funny. With little more than the occasional nod to the threat that Jim will ultimately face, Klein still manages to make this first section of the novel extremely readable and strangely exciting. Which, given the novel’s corporate setting, is something to shout about.

The trouble starts on a Tuesday afternoon in September.

As the second section of the novel begins, Klein shifts up a couple of gears and brings the threat into the forefront of the narrative, taking Jim completely out of his comfort zone. As the pressure builds, Jim starts slipping into old habits, and when he discovers that his neighbours are watching his house, he starts realise that nothing is quite what it seems. Tension mounts – along with the body count – until the shock ending, one of only many twists and turns the reader will encounter along the way. For me, this final twist was one too far, and raised as many questions about the preceding narrative as it answered. Suddenly things that we had taken for granted no longer made any sense. While it by no means ruined the novel for me, it left me feeling slightly cheated and a little bit flat.

Jim Thane is a character that the reader will love to hate; his current job and his horrible past combine to leave very few likeable qualities, and yet we still feel sorry for him when we see how he is treated by his wife, or how his life begins to fall apart at the seams as he digs into Tao Software’s history. That said, he’s an engaging narrator and often brings some comic relief to otherwise tense situations. The combination of thoroughly unpleasant central character and corporate subject matter should make No Way Back the ultimate snooze-fest, but what we find is the complete opposite: engaging and entertaining, we are compelled to keep going, as much to see if Jim can turn the company’s fortunes around, as to find out what’s happening with the Russian mob.

Overall, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read. A slightly misjudged ending is the only thing holding it back from “excellent”. There is a ready-made audience in Klein’s peers in the software industry, or anyone who has ever worked in a corporate environment, but No Way Back will also have a much wider appeal and should be perfect for anyone who likes their thrillers to have a slow build and an ending that packs a punch.

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.

   
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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.

   
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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.

   
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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.

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