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The 2016 Round-Up

Another year coming to an end (and one many of us will be very happy to see the back of), which means its time for me to do a quick round-up and list my favourite books of the year. I’m late getting this out this year, so if you’re looking to buy any of these books as presents, you’ll need to get the finger out!

THE ROUND-UP

Goodreads informs me that I have read 84 books during this year, which is considerably more than any previous year. A massive 55 of these were by authors I haven’t read before, and 23 of those were debut works. 2016 was an excellent year for fiction debuts, and my debut Top Ten below was much more difficult to produce than the non-debut Top Ten. This years figures also include a miserable 4 pieces of translated fiction.

Unfortunately, last year’s laziness persisted, meaning that not every book that I read got a review on Reader Dad. My aim is to do much better in 2017, and I have given the site a bit of a spruce-up in anticipation of a much more active year. As a result, many of the books in the lists below don’t have links to existing reviews, but I’ll try to summarise quickly why I loved them so much. The books appear in the order in which they were read and, as always, only books originally published in the UK during 2016 are included.

So, without further ado…

MATT’S TOP DEBUTS OF 2016

IN A LAND OF PAPER GODS by Rebecca Mackenzie (Tinder Press)

The first book I failed to review is also one of the earliest I read this year. Rebecca Mackenzie’s In a Land of Paper Gods introduces us to 10-year-old Henrietta Robertson, the daughter of British missionaries attending a boarding school in China. As the threat of war looms in the background, Etta finds herself at the heart of the Prophetess Club, convinced that she is privy to God’s divine will. A beautiful coming-of-age story that is by turns hilariously funny and darkly sinister.

   
TALL OAKS by Chris Whitaker (twenty7)

Welcome to Tall Oaks, the epitome of small-town America, a town in mourning following the disappearance of a young child. As the child’s mother leads the search, constantly bombarding the town’s sheriff with requests and information, the rest of the small town’s residents try to get on with their lives, despite the ever-present spectre. Comic noir at its very best, Tall Oaks is a showcase for Chris Whitaker’s already-impressive talent. The characters are the driving force behind this story, and they will remain with you long after the story has finished. This is an absolute gem.

   
HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt [trans: Nancy Forest-Flier] (Hodder & Stoughton)

HEX reads like the work of a much more mature and developed author, so it’s a surprise to discover that it is Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s debut. Tension and horror combine to make this a story that is impossible to put down, as the deepening sense of unease suddenly flares into all-out shivers that run the length of your spine. Wonderfully written – and presented here in an excellent translation by Nancy Forest-Flier – and perfectly-judged, HEX is old-fashioned horror with a modern-day twist done right. It’s a story that will stay with you long after the lights have gone out, and places Thomas Olde Heuvelt high on this reader’s must-read list.

   
THE LAST DAYS OF SUMMER by Vanessa Ronan (Penguin)

While The Last Days of Summer doesn’t appear to be my usual fare, this is one of those cases where the book cover seriously lets down the story within. This is humanity laid bare, with all of our foibles and petty arguments on show for the world to see. This is a book that I can’t help but unashamedly and unreservedly recommend to anyone, and Vanessa Ronan proves that she has a talent that will quickly set her amongst the greats of whichever genre she chooses to write in. I’m an instant fan, and will be watching Ronan’s career with an eagle eye in the years to come. Do not miss this book.

   
SOCKPUPPET by Matthew Blakstad (Hodder & Stoughton)

Brilliant writing and a story that is relevant to every person who has ever used a networked device combine to make Sockpuppet one of the standout debuts of the year. Behind the apt (if coincidental) grinning pig on the front cover is a story that grips you from the outset and leaves you wishing for more as the final page is turned. Darkly comic but intrinsically frightening, this is a cautionary tale of an all-too-possible near future and marks Matthew Blakstad as an extremely talented new voice in the world of speculative fiction.

   
THE COUNTENANCE DIVINE by Michael Hughes (John Murray)

Deftly tying together four different stories from four different time periods, Michael Hughes’ debut novel is a sublime work of art. Beautiful writing gives us four very distinct and recognisable voices as we follow John Milton’s seminal work from its creation in 1666 to its significance on the Millennium bug in 1999. This is, quite possibly, the best book I’ve read this year.

   
THE WOLF ROAD by Beth Lewis (The Borough Press)

The Wolf Road is a novel that ignores genre boundaries in order to be the best story it can be. Beth Lewis writes with a confidence and sense of control that belies her debut novelist status. Through the characters, the language, the geography, the brief world history, she has constructed a complex and satisfying story that is at once thriller and horror, Western and crime drama, speculative fiction and character study. The result is so much more than the sum of all these components: an engrossing story built around a unique and memorable protagonist, a standout piece in a year filled with big-name releases. Get on at the ground floor – you’ll be hearing a lot about Beth Lewis in the coming months and years, so take the time to enjoy that sense that you’ve discovered The Next Big Thing before everyone else.

   
VIGIL by Angela Slatter (Jo Fletcher Books)

Vigil is a brilliant debut novel from an exciting writer who cut her teeth on short stories. Pacy and engaging, it’s a book that demands to be finished once it has been started. Verity Fassbinder is a name, and a character, not quickly forgotten by the reader, sure to become a staple of the genre as the series progresses, as instantly recognisable as, say, Sookie Stackhouse or Katniss Everdeen. Angela Slatter is a confident and talented writer whose ability to build worlds is surpassed only by her skill in populating them. A complete story in its own right, Vigil is, nevertheless, the first book in a series, and it leaves the reader gasping for more as it draws to a close. Already one of my favourite books of the year, I can’t help but recommend this to everyone.

   
SECURITY by Gina Wohlsdorf (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)

One of this year’s gems, Security is one of the finest horror novels to be produced in quite a while. Slick, clever and with a clear, engaging voice it should put author Gina Wohlsdorf firmly on the map, alongside some of finest young writers working in the genre today: Lebbon, Keene, Littlewood, Langan. It’s a book that cries out for a second read, if only to plug the inevitable gap until the author’s second novel, and is a must-read for anyone who enjoys intelligently-written horror fiction. I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

MATT’S TOP NON-DEBUTS OF 2016

TRAVELERS REST by Keith Lee Morris (Weidenfeld & Nicholson)

Reminiscent of King’s Desperation and Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Keith Lee Morris’ latest novel – the first to be published in the UK – is an intense and gripping story that succeeds in its aim to unsettle the reader, to turn what we think we know on its head and leave us stranded with the Addison family in the strange little town of Good Night, Idaho. Wonderful writing and excellent characterisation combine to keep the story very much grounded in reality, despite the unnerving and unusual sights we will see during our stay in the Travelers Rest. A fine new voice in horror fiction, Keith Lee Morris shows an impressive talent and a deep understanding of his chosen genre. I’m interested to see where his talents take him next; in the meantime, Travelers Rest should be on your list of books to read this year.

   
13 MINUTES by Sarah Pinborough (Gollancz)

Having skimmed through my reviews of previous Pinborough novels, I can see they are overflowing with gushing hyperbole. 13 Minutes shows that every word of it is true, as if we needed any further confirmation following last year’s stunning The Death House. This is the work of a writer at the very top of her game, one who is comfortable turning her hand to any subject, any genre. It’s a book that you won’t want to put down once you’ve started it, drawn in by the characters who are barely restrained by the book’s pages and by the author’s glorious ability to manipulate the reader in the same easy manner that she manipulates her creations. If you haven’t read Pinborough before, 13 Minutes is as good a place to start as any. If you have, then what are you waiting for? While you may not know what to expect story-wise, there’s one guarantee: there are very few writers as talented and as readable as Sarah Pinborough and 13 Minutes is an excellent new addition to an unsurpassed body of work.

   
THE FIREMAN by Joe Hill (Gollancz)

In all, The Fireman is an excellent showcase for the talents of Joe Hill. I mentioned earlier that I think it’s likely to be his breakout novel, the story that spreads his name outside the genre. Yes, this is a grim look at post-apocalyptic America, but it’s a very different take than anything we’ve seen before. And more than that, it’s a story about people, about humanity’s acts of kindness and of evil. It’s a story about love, community, family. A story about hope, and how we cope when hope seems lost. Intense, beautiful and completely engrossing, The Fireman is Joe Hill’s finest novel to date, the work of a confident and mature writer for whom words are the building blocks of pure magic. It’s amongst the best novels I – or you – will read this year, and one I will be revisiting with the same frequency that I do its forebear. Essential reading for everyone, this is not to be missed.

   
THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES by Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories)

Aliya Whiteley’s follow-up to her first novella, The Beauty, is as deeply affecting and beautifully written as its predecessor. A very different beast, The Arrival of Missives weaves history and speculative fiction together and presents us the link in the form of the characters at the centre of the tale. While the novella seems to be Whiteley’s medium of choice – and it is one that certainly works well for her – this reader yearns to see her turn her hand to the much longer form in the near future. An incredible talent, Aliya Whiteley continues to astound and delight, and The Arrival of Missives confirms what anyone who read The Beauty already knew: these books, and this writer, are not to be missed, under any circumstances.

   
END OF WATCH by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

Perhaps the strongest book of the trilogy, End of Watch is a welcome return to the unnamed city that is the home of Bill Hodges and the assortment of characters with whom he consorts. As with all of King’s work, the characters are key, though the reader can’t help but be impressed by the groundwork the author has already laid in earlier volumes to support the grand finale that he presents here. Despite his age, King shows that he is still as relevant, still as in-touch with the world we live in, as younger generations of writers, and proves, once again, that when it comes to transporting the reader into his fictional worlds, he remains without equal.

   
THE CITY OF MIRRORS by Justin Cronin (Orion Books)

Without a doubt the best of the trilogy, The City of Mirrors provides a satisfying conclusion to the story started over six years ago. I can almost guarantee that readers will come away from this volume with an intense desire to go back to the start and read through to the end. It’s a project I will be undertaking myself in the near future. Justin Cronin is a master storyteller and his post-apocalyptic vision stands alongside the genre’s finest. With The City of Mirrors, a wonderful story in its own right, he also shows an ability to deliver on the promises he made in earlier volumes. An engrossing plot coupled with characters who are at once familiar and strangely changed – whether because of the four years that have passed in real time since we last met them, or because of the twenty years that have passed in the course of the narrative it is difficult to say – brings a fitting close to one of the best pieces of horror fiction produced in the past decade. This is hopefully not the last the genre has heard of Justin Cronin. I can’t help but recommend this – and the preceding two volumes of what can only be described as his masterpiece – unreservedly.

   
LYING IN WAIT by Liz Nugent (Penguin Random House)

Liz Nugent’s writing is beautiful, the voices of the three narrators perfectly pitched, the quirks and tics we might expect in their speech beautifully translated to the written form. From the opening page, Nugent holds the reader in the palm of her hands, so the gut-punch she delivers as the novel draws to a close feels like a physical thing, leaving the reader stunned and disbelieving, emotionally drained yet already hoping for more more MORE! I missed Nugent’s debut, Unravelling Oliver, when it came out in 2014, but it’s definitely on my must-read list even as I try to recover from the effects of this one. An incredible novel, Lying in Wait is a lightning-fast read that should be an essential item for anyone packing for holiday. It cements Liz Nugent’s place as one of Ireland’s finest living novelists, and places her, at the very least, on this reader’s “must-read” list.

   
UNDYING: A LOVE STORY by Michel Faber (Canongate)

Undying: A Love Story is less love story and more love letter, the poems all addressed to Eva herself. It’s an intimate and devastating insight into what can only be described as a very personal experience of two people who are obviously very much in love. It is essential reading, but should only be started when you’re sure you have time to read it cover to cover. Keep a box of tissues handy, but be prepared for moments of pure beauty amidst the darkness. Beautiful, life-changing, unmissable.

   
A CITY DREAMING by Daniel Polansky (Hodder & Stoughton)

Shifting his focus from fantasy worlds to the one in which we live, Daniel Polansky gives us his version of New York. Well, the dark and magical underbelly at any rate. With writing and characterisation that made The Low Town Trilogy such a success, A City Dreaming is engrossing, captivating and, at times, very VERY funny. Reminiscent of Gaiman at his best, A City Dreaming shows Polansky back on top form.

   
THE WONDER by Emma Donoghue (Picador)

Emma Donoghue’s latest novel takes readers back to the Irish Midlands in the middle of the 19th Century. Hired by the council of a small village, Nightingale alumnus Lib Wright’s job is to watch 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell for two weeks in an attempt to determine how the girl remains healthy despite the fact that she hasn’t eaten a bite in four months. With a fine grasp of how the Irish work, and an uncanny ability to tell a story that keeps the audience captivated start to finish, Emma Donoghue’s latest novel is her finest since Room.

   
PAINKILLER by N. J. Fountain (Sphere)

Part examination of the oft-misunderstood phenomenon of chronic neuropathic pain, part thriller, N.J. Fountain’s latest novel takes the reader on a twist-filled journey through the life of Monica Wood. A full review of Painkiller will appear on Reader Dad soon.

AND AN HONOURABLE MENTION…

Technically, since this book was originally published in 2006, it shouldn’t be included in this year’s list. But the release of the beautifully-illustrated Tenth Anniversary Deluxe Edition is all the excuse I need to give it an honourable mention.

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS by John Boyne & Oliver Jeffers (Doubleday)

From its light-hearted opening line to its inevitable and horrific end, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a gripping and essential take on one of humanity’s darkest moments. Boyne pulls no punches, despite the child’s-eye view that he uses to tell much of the story, and the reader comes away from the experience a changed – and extremely damp-eyed – person. While it is ostensibly a book aimed at children (I can’t wait until my own child is old enough to read it with me), this is a book that deserves to be read by everyone, an important story that – especially in these dark times where many seem to be forgetting the lessons of the past – is perfectly-pitched to give our children an early glimpse of the horrors inflicted on the world by Nazi Germany. A tough read (especially when you know what’s coming), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas remains one of the best books I’ve ever read, and this tenth anniversary edition marks both John Boyne and Oliver Jeffers as national treasures, men in whose hands the education and edification of our children are safe. If you haven’t read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I would urge you to do so. If you have, don’t you think it’s about time for a revisit?

COMING SOON . . .

2017 is already shaping up to be an excellent year of fiction, with the first three books I have read that are due out in January already almost certainly claiming a place on next year’s best-of lists. Expect a revitalised Reader Dad in the New Year with a busy January already planned.

All that remains is for me to thank the wonderful publicists and publishers who keep me stocked with such excellent reading material; the fantastic authors who not only provide these excellent reads but who, in many cases, give up time and energy to write guest posts or provide answers to my inane Q&As; and you, the readers, for your continued support: without you, I’d just be talking to myself.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy, Safe and Prosperous 2017.

THE FIREMAN by Joe Hill

THE FIREMAN - Joe Hill THE FIREMAN

Joe Hill (www.joehillfiction.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£20.00

Harper Grayson is working as a school nurse when the world ends. Draco Incendia Trychophyton, better known as Dragonscale, is a spore that infects that vast majority of people with whom it comes into contact – the symptoms are a beautiful tattoo-like patterning of the skin and an almost-certain chance of spontaneous combustion. Within six months Harper is carrying both the virus and a baby, and is running for her life from her husband who, in a misguided attempt to save her from the horrible end guaranteed by the ‘scale, is trying to kill her. Harper is rescued by an unlikely couple – a teenage girl in a Captain America mask and an Englishman in a fireman’s outfit – and taken to Camp Wyndham, a nearby summer resort now serving as home for infected people like her, under the watchful eye of “Father” Tom Storey.

Intrigued by the fireman, who has an uncanny ability to control the Dragonscale fire, Harper joins the camp as their resident medical expert, and quickly becomes engrossed in their search for the almost-mythical island of 80’s television star, Martha Quinn, which promises to be paradise for those with the ‘scale. But things are far from as perfect at Camp Wyndham as they appear on the surface, and as tensions rise, Harper finds that she is more prisoner than resident, and that the eye of suspicion is rarely far away when “Mother” Carol and ex-policeman Ben Patchett put their heads together.

From the book’s size alone, it’s easy to tell that Joe Hill’s latest foray into the weird, wide world is massive in both scope and ambition. A glimpse at the apocalypse, and the world it leaves behind, The Fireman is, without doubt, his most ambitious novel yet, and is anchored in reality, to a large degree, by the large of cast of characters that bring the story to life. It’s sure to be compared favourably with The Stand (more on this later), and it is, without doubt, a comparison that is well-deserved. Mining from a rich vein of popular culture – everything from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead and all points in between – Hill has produced a novel that will appeal to a broad range of readers, the breakout novel that is sure to expose his name – and his work – to more than the relatively small pool of genre readers who, up until now, have been his core audience.

Told from the point of view of Harper Grayson (who later reverts to her maiden name Willowes), the novel takes us through the end of the world as we would fully expect to witness it ourselves: on television, the facts distorted by whichever political lens is used by the channel in question to view the world.

FOX said the dragon had been set loose by ISIS, using spores that had been invented by the Russians in the 1980s. MSNBC said sources indicated the ‘scale might’ve been created by engineers at Halliburton and stolen by cult Christian types fixated on the Book of Revelation. CNN reported both sides.

For the duration of the novel, Harper becomes the centre of our world, and her struggle to see her child safely born is one in which we become completely invested. Her mannerisms are informed, in many ways, by the characters played by Julie Andrews in the likes of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, and, in fact, the fireman’s English character provides the perfect Bert-like foil to Harper’s Mary Poppins as their relationship develops. Harper’s contraction of the virus is the first sign that there is more to Dragonscale than we might have been led to believe; rather than the certain death that, say, a zombie bite might bring, Hill introduces the burning hope – hope because Harper has become such an important part of our lives – that the virus is survivable.

This is reinforced by the residents of Camp Wyndham, who have discovered the secret of living in harmony with the ‘scale, and, in particular, John Rookwood – the eponymous Fireman – and the Storey children, Allie and Nick.

Despite the novel’s title, Rookwood plays a relatively small part in most of what goes on: he lives on a small island off the shore of Camp Wyndham and rarely mixes with the residents of the camp, although it is clear that he has certain abilities when it comes to the ‘scale: not only can he control the fire, but he can shape it, give it consciousness and direction, and send it out to do his bidding. It is, perhaps, for this reason that he feels the need for isolation, and why he is feared by many of the Wyndham people.

wyndhamA place of comfort and friendship, the camp quickly gives Harper a sense of belonging, a strange though welcome feeling of family with teenage Allie and her young deaf-mute brother Nick, the grandchildren of the camp’s leader. There are everyday tensions – small factions within the camp who can’t live by the simple rules, or who believe that Father Storey’s approach to leadership is ineffective. But these minor tensions pale in comparison to the threat that constantly hangs over these people: the threat of discovery by a Cremation Crew on patrol, a death sentence from which there is no escape. These people – uninfected and striving to rid the world of those who have the ‘scale – are personified in radio personality, The Marlboro Man, with whom Harper’s ex-husband Jacob has aligned himself.

The Fireman takes an unusual approach to the post-apocalypse, turning our expectations on their heads, and asking us to root for the people who would normally be considered the bad guys. Imagine The Walking Dead where the zombies are the central characters, or The Stand where we’re asked to sympathise with a group of people who have been infected by Captain Tripps. Hill presents us with a group of infected characters – characters who should be dead, but who have found a way to live – and invites us to live their story. Evil comes in the form of the uninfected, who are trying to stamp out the infection and save as much of what’s left of the world as they possibly can. In normal circumstances we would be right there with them, hunting down the infected and hammering wooden stakes through their hearts, but here it is difficult to identify with them and we find ourselves hoping for a world where Dragonscale might become a normal part of human life. It’s a powerful image, and Hill does a fantastic job ensuring that we can still feel empathy for these people who, aside from the beautiful scrollwork on their skin, are people that we can easily relate to and empathise with, despite the extraordinary circumstances in which they find themselves.

Hill makes excellent use of imagery, and repeating motifs, to make the story more real for us, to bring it to life more fully in our minds. The characters and locations are well-drawn and seem to leap off the page as we read, but it’s things like the phoenix or the Freightliner that will stick with us long after we have finished reading the book. The fiery phoenix is a thing of beauty and 80s children will be hard-pressed not to think of Battle of the Planets when they first encounter it. A force for good, it is the diametric opposite of the Freightliner, the town truck that Jacob Grayson drives, and which haunts the residents of Camp Wyndham from the moment they first see it. In many ways an homage to Richard Matheson’s (and, indeed, Steven Spielberg’s) Duel, this truck takes on a life of its own, and constantly looms in the background of the story, a symbol of everything Harper has come to hate and fear about her ex-husband.

The homages and references come thick and fast, most frequently in the form of some of the greats of post-apocalyptic fiction lending their names to places or things. Camp Wyndham is the most obvious example, while The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood has a boat named after her. J.K. Rowling even gets a mention, as we learn of her demise at the mercy of the ‘scale. But perhaps the biggest homage, and the greatest source of inspiration for The Fireman, is the aforementioned King classic, The Stand.

As a massive fan of Stephen King, I tend to nerd out over the cross-references and in-jokes that he plants in his novels. More recently King and son Hill have been referencing each other’s books: Hill’s references to the world of The Dark Tower in his 2013 novel, NOS4R2 (or NOS4A2 for the world outside the UK); and King’s references to the central character from Hill’s debut, Heart-Shaped Box, in 2014’s Mr Mercedes. Here, Hill seems to take the referencing to a whole new level, and the number of parallels between The Fireman and The Stand are, frankly, staggering: world-changing virus: check; pregnant protagonist: check; a deaf-mute called Nick: check; an obnoxious teen called Harold: check; a leader who is referred to as “Mother” (or, indeed, “Father”): check. And that’s just the ones I made a note of. Despite these parallels, the stories are very different, The Fireman at once Hill’s own Stand and wonderful homage to four decades of his father’s work (including Hill’s own version of The Mist’s Mrs Carmody). Dark Tower enthusiasts will spot some references here as well to that well-worn world: Nozz-a-la Cola, and this disconnected thought as consciousness drains from Harper partway through the book:

They had forgotten who they were. They had forgotten their own names, the voices of their mothers, the faces of their fathers.

With The Fireman, Joe Hill has taken a strange – if not entirely unwelcome, for those of us who like Stephen King, at least – turn in his career as a novelist. For a man determined to make his way in the publishing world by his own talent rather than who he was – like many in the relatively small horror community of the time, I read and loved Hill’s collection, 20th Century Ghosts, before knowing his true identity – it seems odd that he should now attempt – very successfully, mind – to follow so closely in his father’s footsteps. The references are the least of it: there is a wonderful similarity in the writing styles of the pair and the reader comes away with the distinct impression that both subject matter and voice make this a distinctly “King” piece of work. The book is dedicated to, amongst a host of others, “my father, from whom I stole all the rest”, and The Fireman proves that, in this case at least, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Who better to be the “new Stephen King” than the man’s own son? This reader hopes that it’s not a miscalculation on Hill’s part, that it’s little more than an experiment in writing (though I, for one, would love to see Hill take on the fabled Gunslinger and crew). Because while The Fireman is a spectacular piece of work, Hill deserves much more than to be the shadow of his father.

In all, The Fireman is an excellent showcase for the talents of Joe Hill. I mentioned earlier that I think it’s likely to be his breakout novel, the story that spreads his name outside the genre. Yes, this is a grim look at post-apocalyptic America, but it’s a very different take than anything we’ve seen before. And more than that, it’s a story about people, about humanity’s acts of kindness and of evil. It’s a story about love, community, family. A story about hope, and how we cope when hope seems lost. Intense, beautiful and completely engrossing, The Fireman is Joe Hill’s finest novel to date, the work of a confident and mature writer for whom words are the building blocks of pure magic. It’s amongst the best novels I – or you – will read this year, and one I will be revisiting with the same frequency that I do its forebear. Essential reading for everyone, this is not to be missed.

13 MINUTES by Sarah Pinborough

13 Minutes - Sarah Pinborough 13 MINUTES

Sarah Pinborough (sarahpinborough.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£16.99

When the body of sixteen-year-old Natasha Howland is pulled from the freezing river, it takes paramedics thirteen minutes to revive her. Natasha is part of the popular crowd a school, a beauty queen and leader of “the Barbies”, a trio of blonde ice queens for whom status and appearance are everything. With so much going for her, it’s unlikely that her dip in the river was the result of a suicide attempt, but Natasha can’t remember any of the events leading up to her impromptu swim. With the help of her childhood friend, Rebecca, a girl she has recently shunned in favour of the Barbies, Natasha tries to piece together the days leading up to the incident, convinced that her so-called friends Hayley and Jenny were involved in some way. But as the mystery unravels, Rebecca discovers there is more to Natasha’s near-fatal drowning than anyone could have guessed.

From the outset, it’s clear that Sarah Pinborough’s latest novel is a change of direction from anything that she has written before; the resulting story is a cross between psychological thriller and young adult “high-school” fiction (with a distinctly British flavour). Within a handful of pages, the reader is captivated, putty in the hands of a writer who refuses to be constrained by genre boundaries, and who has proven time and again that she can manipulate her reader as easily as she does the characters on the page.

At the centre of 13 Minutes are two teenage girls from opposite ends of the social spectrum: on the one hand the blonde, thin, beautiful, popular Natasha; on the other, dark-haired, “dumpy geek”, almost-invisible Rebecca. Once close friends, these two girls are now separated by the chasm of teenage social hierarchy. Now, following her thirteen minutes in the arms of Death, Natasha returns to her old friend Rebecca who, in her desperation to be somebody, accepts Natasha’s return without question.

As always, the strength of Pinborough’s storytelling lies in her characters, in her ability to get deep inside the mind of a teenage girl, and show us the world through her eyes. In Natasha, we find a girl whose outlook on life has changed drastically since her return to life: there is regret for the fickleness of the younger her, the shallowness of a girl who values appearance over true friendship. Rebecca is equally damaged, but her life has taken a much different course from that of her childhood friend: she is part of the bottom end of the social structure, those classmates who are barely noticed, all but invisible to those around them. There is a jealous and needy streak that often surprises the reader when it rears its ugly, but it’s a result of that turning point in her life when Rebecca went from somebody to nobody at the whim of the most popular girl in school.

Told from alternating points of view of the central characters – Rebecca, Natasha, Detective Inspector Caitlin Bennett – the narrative is interspersed with documentary evidence – excerpts from Bennett’s case notes; interview transcripts between the girls and their therapist; newspaper clippings – that serve to give us further insight into the mind-sets of these characters. The mystery around which the story is constructed is interesting and engaging and when it takes a darker turn halfway through the book, we can’t help but be impressed by how completely taken in we were. There’s a touch of Pierre Lemaitre in Pinborough’s timing and execution, and in the ease with which she turns everything on its head.

Having skimmed through my reviews of previous Pinborough novels, I can see they are overflowing with gushing hyperbole. 13 Minutes shows that every word of it is true, as if we needed any further confirmation following last year’s stunning The Death House. This is the work of a writer at the very top of her game, one who is comfortable turning her hand to any subject, any genre. It’s a book that you won’t want to put down once you’ve started it, drawn in by the characters who are barely restrained by the book’s pages and by the author’s glorious ability to manipulate the reader in the same easy manner that she manipulates her creations. If you haven’t read Pinborough before, 13 Minutes is as good a place to start as any. If you have, then what are you waiting for? While you may not know what to expect story-wise, there’s one guarantee: there are very few writers as talented and as readable as Sarah Pinborough and 13 Minutes is an excellent new addition to an unsurpassed body of work.

The 2015 Round-Up

As 2015 draws to a close, it’s time to take a step back and reflect on the year that has been. As is now “traditional”, I’ll be using this post to talk about my favourite books of the year, but first a quick blast through some of the non-bookish stuff that happened in the past twelve months.

For me, 2015 was always going to be significant because it’s the year in which I turned forty (so old!) and, thanks to my wife, I spent my fortieth birthday fulfilling the lifelong ambition of visiting KL Auschwitz and the nearby city of Kraków (I’ll talk more about this early in the New Year). 2015 also saw the release of the much-hyped latest instalment in the Star Wars franchise, a film that did not disappoint, and which reawakened (pun most definitely intended) something of the child buried deep within this forty-year-old body, helped in no small way by the fact that I was able to share the experience with my six-year-old son, who bears all the hallmarks of becoming twice the nerd his father is.

THE ROUND-UP

As the reading year closes, Goodreads informs me that I have read 74 books, and I’m likely to finish both my current paperback and audiobook reads before the end of the day. Of these, 34 are by authors I have never read before, and 13 of those were debuts. A miserly seven were translated fiction, and you’ll find a few of them on the lists below.

Eagle-eyed readers will spot that only 34 reviews were posted on Reader Dad during 2015, which falls way short of the 74 books completed. I can only apologise, and my only excuse is laziness. My aim for 2016 is to get back to a more regular review schedule and to review, if not everything I read, then the vast majority of it. As a result, many of the books in the top ten lists below don’t have links to existing reviews.

The lists, as always, are presented in the order in which the books were read, so don’t attach any importance to their relative positions.

MATT’S TOP DEBUTS OF 2015

ARAB JAZZ by Karim Miské [trans: Sam Gordon] (MacLehose Press)

Arab Jazz, I have on good authority, is the first novel in a proposed trilogy. Based on the strength of this stunning debut novel, consider me signed up for the rest of the journey. Beautifully written – and translated, for that matter, by Sam Gordon – this is a wonderfully-plotted novel by a man who obviously has deep respect – if not love – for the genre, and for the authors and filmmakers who have practiced it before him. An exceptional debut from an exceptional talent, watch out for Karim Miské: his is a name you will be hearing a lot in the future.

THE DEFENCE by Steve Cavanagh (Orion Books)

The Defence heralds the arrival of a fresh new voice in Irish crime fiction, a voice that is as authentically American as the character at the centre of this excellent debut novel. A gripping read from first page to last, it is a new breed of thriller that nevertheless pays its dues to those who have come before: Jack Reacher, John McClane and, maybe, Perry Mason. Cavanagh’s is a name you should expect to hear a lot of in the coming years, and Eddie Flynn is destined to become as instantly recognisable as his forebears. In a word: unmissable.

DARK STAR by Oliver Langmead (Unsung Stories)

One of the most interesting and original books you’ll read this year, Oliver Langmead’s Dark Star is one of those gems that creeps up and takes you by surprise. Beautifully written, masterfully plotted, and built around a character that is at once a complete stranger and an old friend, it sucks the reader in from the opening stanza, and holds the attention to the very last word. There are ideas and concepts here that will leave you wide-eyed with wonder, alongside wise-cracks that might have dropped fully-formed from the nib of Raymond Chandler’s pen. In short, a masterpiece, and a story you really won’t want to miss.

JAKOB’S COLOURS by Lindsay Hawdon (Hodder & Stoughton)

Beautiful and horrific, Jakob’s Colours is an intense and gripping examination of one person’s experiences during the Second World War, written in a way that examines how an entire race of people suffered during that war. Lindsay Hawdon’s writing is beautiful, her characterisation pitch perfect, her ability to terrify and sicken eclipsed only by her ability to make us smile, to appeal to our maternal or paternal instincts for this small boy on his own. Like any book whose subject is genocide, it is difficult to come away from Jakob’s Colours feeling that you’ve enjoyed yourself, but it is an important book, a story that is still very relevant seventy years after its setting; this is a book that demands an audience and I can guarantee that you will not come away disappointed.

THE ENCHANTED THE ENCHANTED by Rene Denfield (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

I didn’t review this book at the time because I didn’t think I could do it justice. Told from the point of view of a prisoner on death row, it intertwines his story with that of an investigator tasked with getting the sentence of a fellow inmate commuted. Beautiful and haunting, it’s an accomplished first novel that will leave you gasping for more.

Small Angry Planet THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL ANGRY PLANET by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)

Without doubt, the best piece of science fiction you’ll read this year, or any year. Following Rosemary Harper’s first few months as a member of the Wayfarer’s crew, this wonderful novel focuses very much on the characters as a way to tell its tale. And what a bunch of characters they are! Reminiscent of the dear-departed Firefly, the novel has an episodic structure that means each chapter is a self-contained “story” that, when combined, produces a fun, action-packed space opera adventure that should not be missed.

DRY BONES IN THE VALLEY by Tom Bouman (Faber & Faber)

There are echoes of William Gay in Bouman’s writing, even with the northern setting, and the central premise has the feel of Longmire about it. Despite the light tone, and the friendliness of Henry Farrell, there is a hard edge to Dry Bones in the Valley, a tension that oozes from the pages to the point where it feels like Henry is putting on an act to put us at ease as we navigate the almost incestuous relationships that define Wild Thyme. It is a beautifully-written work that sucks the reader into this strange and beautiful world. The solution to these horrific crimes becomes secondary as the novel progresses, the voice of Henry and his stories and observations the main reason we’re in this to the end. Henry Farrell is the type of character that deserves further outings, though his current placement is likely to make that difficult (just how many people can die in a small town before it becomes ridiculous? I’m looking at you, Midsomer!). One thing is for sure: Tom Bouman is a writer of considerable talent, and Dry Bones in the Valley, one of the best pieces of detective fiction I’ve read in some time, is just the tip of the iceberg.

The-Loney THE LONEY by Andrew Michael Hurley (John Murray)

Another stunner that I failed to review at the time. Quietly disturbing and beautifully written, this is the horror debut of the year. Hurley is already on my must-read list.

 

MATT’S TOP NON-DEBUTS OF 2015

THE DEATH HOUSE by Sarah Pinborough (Gollancz)

Sarah Pinborough proves yet again that she is an exceptional writer regardless of genre. And therein lies her biggest problem. I’m not sure how Gollancz aim to market this one: science fiction? Dystopia? Young adult? Either way, its audience is likely to be limited to people who read the genre in question. The Death House, Pinborough’s finest novel to date, should be required reading for everyone who enjoys spending time with a good book. A worthy successor to those great books that influenced it, The Death House is the best book you’ll read in 2015, guaranteed, and Sarah Pinborough cements her place as one of our finest living novelists.

THOSE ABOVE by Daniel Polansky (Hodder & Stoughton)

Dark fantasy with a decidedly military bent, Those Above is the perfect opener for Daniel Polansky’s career beyond Low Town. With his unmistakeable voice and his highly original new world, he draws the reader slowly in until it’s impossible to put the book down and escape back to reality. A brilliant start to what is sure to be one of the fantasy epics of all time, Those Above is the work of an author at the top of his game and brings with it the promise of a lot more to come.

CREATIVE TRUTHS IN PROVINCIAL POLICING by Paula Lichtarowicz (Hutchinson)

Anyone picking up Creative Truths in Provincial Policing expecting something in a similar vein to The First Book of Calamity Leek will be surprised at just how different Paula Lichtarowicz’s second novel is. But the key elements are all here: well-drawn characters, an engaging and very original plot, and a narrative voice like no other. Creative Truths is a wonderful second novel and one that is impossible to put down once you’ve made the start. It cements Lichtarowicz’s place as an author worth watching and leaves the reader wishing and hoping for more. You may not come away with a burning desire to visit Vietnam, but you won’t read crime fiction in quite the same light ever again. Either way, it needs to be one of your must-reads for the year.

I AM RADAR by Reif Larsen (Harvill Secker)

There are touches of beauty and genius between the covers of I Am Radar. It’s an engaging and emotionally-charged novel that is guaranteed to keep the reader engrossed for the duration. Filled with characters with their own stories to tell – the cast of I Am Radar could populate an entire library of novels – I Am Radar is the perfect fusion of story and design to create something unique, enduring and wonderfully quirky. Funny and touching, exciting and horrifying, it marks a welcome return for Reif Larsen, and a novel you most definitely will not want to miss.

THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND by Stuart Neville (Harvill Secker)

With Those We Left Behind, Stuart Neville leaves behind the crimes of post-Troubles Belfast, and focuses on the everyday crimes of a growing, maturing city. A masterwork of misdirection, this is a well-written novel by an author who seems to have found his groove, producing novels that are more challenging for both himself and the reader with each consecutive release. Stuart Neville is at the forefront of the Irish crime fiction movement, and Those We Left Behind is an excellent example of why that’s the case. The perfect jumping-on point for new readers, this is also a very welcome addition for long-time fans, and will leave both groups crying out for more: more Stuart Neville; more Serena Flanagan.

ALL INVOLVED by Ryan Gattis (Picador)

All Involved is, in short, an incredible piece of fiction set against one of the darker periods in America’s recent history. Intricately plotted, finely detailed, this is a beautifully-written novel that gives the reader some insight into the mind-set of the people involved in what can only be described as a fictional representation of something that could very well have happened while all eyes were looking elsewhere. Ryan Gattis has proven himself to be a writer of considerable talent, with an ear for language and inflection that allows him to create living, breathing characters who seem to jump off the page. Expect to have trouble putting this one down once you’ve started reading but under no circumstances should you miss this opportunity to watch a true master at work.

FALL OF MAN IN WILMSLOW by David Lagercrantz [trans: George Goulding] (MacLehose Press)

David Lagercrantz is a name that you’ll have heard a lot recently, as he has written a follow-up to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, which sees worldwide publication later this year. Fall of Man in Wilmslow is the first of his novels to get an English translation, and shows that he is a writer of considerable talent. In much the same way that Jöel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is the perfect American novel, here Lagercrantz has produced something that feels truly English, from the sleepy setting of Wilmslow, to the character of Leonard Corell. Beautifully written – not to mention wonderfully translated by George Goulding (a new name for me) – it is at once a brilliant portrait of one of the nation’s (not to mention my own personal) heroes, an engaging mystery, and a shocking look at the values and opinions of the English in the early 1950s. An unexpected gem, Fall of Man in Wilmslow is one of my favourite books of the year so far, and leaves me with the hope that we’ll see more of Lagercrantz’s work translated (beyond summer’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web) in the very near future.

As an aside, The Girl in the Spider’s Web was an exceptional follow-up to Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, and probably would have secured a place on this list had Fall of Man in Wilmslow not been released the same year.

SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson (The Borough Press)

A weighty tome, yes, but Seveneves grabs the reader with its opening line and holds their attention for the five thousand year and almost 900-page duration. This latest addition to Neal Stephenson’s canon has all of the author’s trademarks – great characters, great premise, plenty of technical detail and a wicked sense of humour – and adds another string to a bow that already encompasses multiple genres and technical areas. Stephenson is a rare beast: a polymath with the ability to tell an engaging and entertaining story. Seveneves is an excellent addition to a body of work that includes genre classics like Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, old-fashioned hard science fiction in the style of Asimov, and shows, once again, that Stephenson is a writer to be reckoned with, one of our greatest living storytellers.

STALLO by Stefan Spjut [trans: Susan Beard] (Faber & Faber)

Stallo is not Stefan Spjut’s first novel, but it is his first in the horror genre. Following in the successful footsteps of John Ajvide Lindqvist, Spjut presents a story – not to mention a central conceit – that is pure Sweden, but which is given a global appeal through a choice of monster that has haunted the dreams of every child at some point in their lives (‘Who is that trip-trapping over my bridge?’). Beautifully written, this is quiet horror at its finest. Destined to be forever compared to Lindqvist’s vampire classic, Stallo stands well enough in its own right to show that the burgeoning Swedish horror scene is more than a one-trick pony, and fills this reader with joy at the prospect of what is still to come. Stefan Spjut is a name to remember; I expect we’ll be hearing plenty from him in the coming years. Stallo is a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a fan of horror fiction, and should prove an interesting alternative for those growing tired of the endless parade of Swedish detectives that seem to be taking over the shelves of our local bookshops.

WAY DOWN DARK by JP Smythe (Hodder & Stoughton)

Combining elements of Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Mad Max with a dash of Dredd for good measure, Way Down Dark is one of the most original science fiction novels you’re likely to encounter this year. Branded as “Young Adult”, there is a darkness to the story that will appeal to an older audience, showing that Smythe has a good grasp on what makes a story like this truly universal. This is a writer who continues to go from strength to strength and shows no signs of slowing down. If you’re yet to jump on the bandwagon, Way Down Dark is the perfect place to start, and with the second book in the trilogy, Long Dark Dusk, already announced, there is no better time to jump into Chan’s world, and explore the Australia. While it’s not an entirely pleasant journey (the story most definitely lives up to the title’s Dark), this is a book that’s almost impossible to set down once you’ve started reading, and a story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished.

EVERY NIGHT I DREAM OF HELL by Malcolm Mackay (Mantle)

This one feels very much like I’m preaching to the choir: those who have read Malcolm Mackay’s earlier novels will know what to expect, and will probably already have committed to read Every Night I Dream of Hell regardless of what anyone else thinks. For those who haven’t, this isn’t necessarily the best place to start; it can be read without having read the Glasgow Trilogy, but you’ll be missing out on the much richer experience that more than a nodding acquaintanceship with this world provides. Either way, this is noir fiction at its best: sharp and cloaked in shadows, with more than a hint of humour, and enough blood to keep the wheels greased. Malcolm Mackay continues to produce engaging and thought-provoking work in a beautiful prose style that puts him head and shoulders above his contemporaries. In a word: perfect.

SOLOMON CREED by Simon Toyne (HarperCollins)

Simon Toyne’s fourth novel, the first to be set outside the fictional world to which he introduced us in his Sanctus trilogy, cements his place as one of the finest genre writers working today. Clever and engaging, Toyne weaves a number of strands together to produce an exciting, page-turning read. As always, his characterisations are pitch perfect and his sense of place second-to-none – his small-town Arizona seems as real as the Turkish city of Ruin. A perfectly-formed thriller in the author’s own unique style, Solomon Creed is not to be missed by returning fans and Toyne virgins alike.

THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams contains an excellent selection of King’s more recent short works. Perfect fodder for the long, dark winter nights ahead, it will give the reader plenty of food for thought, and the occasional sleepless night. Showcasing the breadth of King’s writing ability in a single volume, something that’s not always possible in a single novel, this is the work of a writer who is comfortable in his own ability, and in the worlds that he creates, but who is constantly in search of the next addition to his writer’s toolbox, the next tool that will make his writing better or, at the very least, broaden his horizons. Occasionally touching, often laugh-out-loud funny and frequently spine-tinglingly chilling, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a wonderful addition to the King canon, and an excellent jumping-on point for anyone who has yet to experience either his work in general, or his short stories in particular.

night-music-uk-225 NIGHT MUSIC: NOCTURNES VOLUME 2 by John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton)

Best known for his Charlie Parker crime novels, John Connolly has a penchant for horror in the short form. This second collection of short horror stories contains some absolute gems, as well as a wonderful Lovecraftian novella in five parts, “The Fractured Atlas”.

THE GREAT SWINDLE by Pierre Lemaitre [trans: Frank Wynne] (MacLehose Press)

I was disappointed with the final book in Lemaitre’s Camille Verhoeven trilogy, feeling that he might have given his best for the first two books of the series. In The Great Swindle he has redeemed himself and proven that he has much more to offer. While very different from his modern day crime trilogy, this latest novel is quintessential Lemaitre: beautifully-written, carefully structured and filled with characters that we love or hate with the same intensity that we might if they were real. It’s an examination of a dark period in French history through the eyes of these people, while still allowing us to see the funny side of things. The first in a proposed 7-book series set to span the interwar period, this fun and intense read (an interesting combination that works extremely well) The Great Swindle puts Pierre Lemaitre firmly back on my must-read list. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year and it’s sure to be a book we’ll be talking about for some time. Not to be missed.

THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN by John Boyne (Doubleday)

Marketed, like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, as a piece of young adult fiction, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is, like its predecessor, essential reading for people of any age. John Boyne uses one – fictional – character’s relationship with Hitler to try to provide a plausible explanation for the horrors of the Second World War. As readers, we become complicit in Pierrot’s transformation, constantly forced to ask ourselves the question “what would I have done differently?” As humans, we watch how easily corruption sets in and wonder how it could have been stopped. Spanish philosopher George Santayana is famous for his quote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” John Boyne uses fiction to remind us of what has come before; he is one of the few writers who is attempting to instil this knowledge in our younger generations and should be commended for his efforts. One of the finest writers working today, his books are the very definition of “must read”.

COMING SOON…

With 2016 looming, one of my resolutions is to try to review all of the books I read this year. The first review, that of Keith Lee Morris’ excellent Travelers Rest, should appear shortly before the end of the year. With new novels from Stephen King, Joe Hill, Daniel Polansky and Sarah Pinborough all due within the first half of the year, it’s shaping up to be another bumper year for readers of genre fiction.

All that remains is for me to thank the wonderful publicists and publishers who keep me stocked with such excellent reading material; the fantastic authors who not only provide these excellent reads but who, in many cases, give up time and energy to write guest posts or provide answers to my inane Q&As; and you, the readers, for your continued support: without you, I’d just be talking to myself.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy, Safe and Prosperous 2016. May The Force Be With You!*

 

* Well, it is the year of the rebirth of Star Wars, after all!

THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard

THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS - Aliette de Bodard THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS

Aliette de Bodard (aliettedebodard.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£14.99

Whilst searching the ruins of Paris’ Grands Magasins for vital resources, Philippe and his companion come across a newborn Fallen, an Angel ejected from The City and exiled to the mortal plain. Deciding to harvest the Fallen for artefacts that contain powerful magic, Philippe is caught when members of one of Paris’ great Houses appears to claim the newborn. Bound to the House by Selene, the Head of Silverspires, and to Isabelle, the newborn, after tasting her blood, Philippe has no option but to find a means of escape. Unrest is brewing in Paris, and another war between the great Houses seems inevitable; it’s a situation that could work in Philippe’s favour, but before he can take advantage, he unwittingly unleashes an unspeakable evil on the House, a shadowy creature that roams the Île de la Cité, picking off members of the Household. Along with Isabelle and Madeleine, the House’s alchemist, Philippe discovers a decades-old secret that could destroy Silverspires.

Aliette de Bodard’s debut novel is set in a post-magical-apocalyptic Paris in or around the 1960s. Destroyed during a magical war that coincided, more or less, with the real world’s Great War, Paris is now a city divided into two main classes: the Houses and the Gangs. The Houses for the most part are run by – or heavily populated by – Fallen Angels, exiled from The City for infractions that they can no longer remember. Paris itself has suffered greatly as part of the war: buildings lie in ruins, provisions are scarce, especially for those not affiliated with one of the Houses, and the Seine is a magic-infested cesspool that humans and angels avoid at all costs.

When we enter this strange new world, we meet Philippe, a Vietnamese national who has ended up in Paris against his will: while he looks to be in his early twenties, Philippe was once Immortal, a member of the Jade Emperor’s court. Now hundreds of years old, Philippe has been in Paris for over sixty years, having been conscripted and shipped to France to fight in the war. Wielding a different flavour of magic to the city’s Fallen, Philippe is an enigma to the elders of House Silverspires of whom he becomes a captive before the story has barely started. His bond with Isabelle, a bond formed when he briefly tasted her blood, adds a further dimension to his captivity: Philippe has a constant watcher, and while Isabelle is new to the House, it is clear where her loyalties will ultimately lie.

Much of the action takes place in House Silverspires, which resides in the ruins of Notre Dame Cathedral and the other buildings on the Île de la Cité. De Bodard uses multiple viewpoints to give us a rounded understanding of how the Houses work, and of the relationships between the different Houses, without the need for much exposition. These viewpoints show us the House from a number of different perspectives: through the eyes of Philippe, who detests the House system for what it did to him during the war; those of Isabelle, the newest member of the Household; Madeleine, a mortal who spends her days working with magic, and dealing with an addiction that could see her expelled from the House should anyone discover it; and through the eyes of Selene, the Head of the House, and the direct successor of the House’s founder, First of the Fallen, Lucifer Morningstar.

Morningstar himself appears only in fleeting glimpses, in visions that Philippe has because of his connection to the evil that now stalks the House’s residents. There is little need for introduction, and de Bodard uses this to her advantage, tagging on the features that she needs for the Morningstar of her own world: the metal wings that were more than an affectation, the aloof manner. In many ways, each of the central characters is living in Morningstar’s shadow, some more literally than others, and despite being missing from both the story and the world – he hasn’t been seen for twenty years at the point Philippe enters House Silverspires – he remains a palpable presence throughout the novel.

The world de Bodard has created is beautifully-wrought, a post-apocalyptic nightmare unlike any you have seen before. There is a dangerous moment early in the narrative where it looks like the story may well stray into the realms of Twilight, but thankfully that proves not to be the case. This is a violent and dangerous world, populated by violent and dangerous characters, many of whom have the double advantage of being able to wield magic and being immortal. It is, strangely, a novel peopled by religious characters that manages to steer clear of the subject of faith (or Faith), bringing the religious mythology from a number of different backgrounds together in a seamless way to tell this gripping story that defies any single genre classification.

The House of Shattered Wings has all the ingredients a good story needs: a well-developed world populated by identifiable, engaging characters whose fate we care about from the moment we meet them and a story that keeps us turning the pages long past bedtime. Stylishly written, this is the most original piece of fiction – I find that “Fantasy” is far too restrictive – you’re likely to come across this year. A wonderful introduction to Aliette de Bodard, who is already an award-winning short story writer, The House of Shattered Wings is an excellent showcase for this mighty talent and adds yet another author to this reader’s “must-read” list.

Author’s Notes: THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard

9781473212565 THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS

Aliette de Bodard (aliettedebodard.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

Hardback £20
eBook £10.99

Today marks the publication of Aliette de Bodard’s stunning debut novel, The House of Shattered Wings. To celebrate, and in anticipation of my forthcoming review of the book, I’m very pleased to welcome Aliette to Reader Dad. She has very kindly provided a short excerpt from the book, and a brief commentary of the section by the author herself. Sit back, enjoy, and whatever you do, don’t miss what is probably the most original (urban) fantasy you’re likely to read for a long time.

For a while, [Philippe] hung suspended in time and space; back to a serenity he’d thought lost, doing nothing but letting the world wash over him, every sensation diminishing until he was once more in that quiet, timeless place where his enlightenment took root.

Gradually—and he wasn’t sure why, or how, or when—it all went away, a slow slide from featureless bliss into something stronger, darker; shadows lengthening over the House, until he stood in a room lined with bookshelves, the only furniture of which was a red plush armchair.

Morningstar sat in the chair. Or rather, lounged in it like a sated tiger, his wings shadowing the sharpness of his face. His pale eyes raking Philippe from top to bottom. “So good of you to come. Shall we start, then?” He inclined his head, and between his spread hands magic whirled and danced, a storm of power that pressed against the bookshelves, stifled the air of the room—cut off Philippe’s breath until it was all he could do to stand.

“I can’t—” he started, and Morningstar shook his head.

“This is power. Embrace it, or others will do it, and leave you gasping in the dust.”

Philippe shook his head, or tried to. He couldn’t seem to move, and Morningstar’s presence was as suffocating as ever—lead pressing on his chest, on his fingers—until it seemed that his nails would lengthen and sharpen, becoming the claws of Morningstar’s own hands. . . .

“Come,” Morningstar said, smiling. “There isn’t much time.”

And he found his feet moving of their own accord, his hands reaching for the magic Morningstar was offering; he took one faltering step into the room, even though his skin was being peeled away from muscle and fat, from bones and glistening veins: one step, then another, straight into the growing maelstrom. . . .

Philippe came to with a gasp. He was standing in a room he had never been to, though he recognized it instantly. It was the same room as in his vision, except that it had badly aged. He had vague memories of exiting the cathedral through a side door, following corridor after corridor; gradually leaving behind the more crowded areas until the House became entombed with dust, gray and bowed with the weight of its true age.

Aliette Says…

One of the things I had to decide on with this novel was what I did with Lucifer Morningstar, the founder of the House where most of the action is set. For various reasons, I removed him from the narration: in the book, he’s been missing for twenty years, and the House he founded finds itself without any of the protections he could have provided. But he can still loom pretty large, given the right circumstances.

Also, the relationship between him and Philippe is… interesting: they’re basically polar opposites. Morningstar is the prime symbol of the House system, and one of the foremost characters to benefit from his position as head of the House. Philippe, meanwhile, is the character who loses the most from that system: as a foreigner and a displaced colonial, he’s burning with an understandable hatred for all Houses!

EXTRACT From STEEPLE by Jon Wallace & COMPETITION

STEEPLE - Jon Wallace STEEPLE

Jon Wallace (jonwallace.co)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£16.99

Today marks the publication of Steeple, the second book set in Jon Wallace’s post-apocalyptic world that we first saw in Barricade. To celebrate, we have a wonderful extract from the book, as well as a competition to win a paperback copy of Barricade.


I drain my cup of soup. Adede expects a pleasantry.
‘You have a good home,’ I say.
‘Thank you. Thank you.’
‘I must return to work now.’
I pick up my tool bag and leave the shack, heading for the north-south avenue. The sky over the city is suddenly dark, a new storm gathering.
I hear a commotion, children screaming in excitement. I turn towards the noise and a large group of young people laughing and yelling. They are gathered in a circle around a concrete slab.
William is the centre of attention, sitting on a BMX, absently watching as his sister lies down on the concrete. She holds out her arms, a huge smile on her face.
William waits for the crowd to settle, then sits up on his bike. He rolls it towards his sister and jumps the bike. He lands the front wheel between her right arm and chest. The crowd gasps, watching as he holds the bike, twisting on its front wheel, rear wheel aloft like bucking hind legs.
He spins anticlockwise, then jumps again, landing the front wheel the other side of Mary’s chest, rear wheel still raised. The children chant, arms thrown up:
‘Will-yam, Will-yam, Will-yam!’
He does not react, fixed in concentration. He jumps again, dropping onto his rear wheel this time, and begins bouncing the bike around his sister – to the left of her head, to the right, then either side of her chest, her waist, her legs, stopping below her feet. There he spins again, manipulating the bike like a fifth limb.
Huge excitement. Screams of disbelief. None are louder than Mary, who rolls and chokes on her laughter. William rides in a slow circle around her, acknowledging his audience with a wave. Such skill.
Then, over the children’s cheers, I hear a different sound: a wave of fright, rolling up the shanty from the south. William hears it too. He stops his bike.
‘Wossat?’
I leap onto the nearest roof and peer down the hill. A crowd of men are pouring through a breach in the south fence. Most are on foot, but some are on horseback. They shoot down shanty dwellers, toss petrol bombs, hammer and kick at the shacks. Many of them carry flags, bearing a symbol like a wolf’s head. Under the icon is smeared the word ‘Truth’.


I leave the children and cut through the alleyways, heading for the avenue, almost knocking Adede over as I break into a clearing. I tell her to locate her daughter and get to the high ground.
‘What are you going to do?’ she asks.
‘I am going to expel them from the premises.’
‘Are you mad?’
‘They are trespassing. I am empowered to defend the site.’
‘They’ll kill you!’
‘Unlikely.’
I leave her, press on to the avenue and head for the slaughter at the southern fence. I can see an invader on horseback, directing the people on foot. His nostrils are as flared as his mount’s.
I leap, drag him off his steed, toss him back towards the fence. I claim his seat, but his horse bucks when I try to steer. I struggle with the reins until I realise I am hurting the animal, and relax my grip.
The horse calms, snorts and stamps the mud. I am turning it towards the fence when I hear the whining noise. The unmistakable rasp of drone engines, overhead. I glance up at the storm clouds, pick out grey T-shapes, flocking.
Wait, I think.
Wait.
The ground shakes. A flash and deafening crack, and suddenly I am slapped to the earth and pinned under the horse. I claw at the mud, drag free of the burning animal, into a cloud of black, sulphurous smoke. I trip up the side of the bomb crater, over body parts and wreckage, breathing poison air.
My avenue is packed with wailing people. They back away from me, frightened by my burning skin. Adede emerges from the pack, her clothes stained with blood. Her eyes are cloudy and unfocused, until she notices me. She bares her teeth and screams.
‘You brought them here! Truth League hates Ficials. They wouldn’t have come here if not for you! They wouldn’t have bombed us if not for you!’
That is untrue.
‘William is DEAD! Their bomb killed my boy!’
She drops to her knees, wailing, clutching her chest.
What does she expect me to do?
She said herself: she would lose at least one child.


Extract 3: p89-90 and p97-98

From author Jon Wallace:

Reason: This extract is a good window into the world that created Kenstibec – a future Britain explored through a flashback story that runs throughout Steeple, showing the invulnerable, calculating Kenstibec as he was when still ‘factory fresh’. These two flashbacks show his first halting interactions with people (refugees) and his first encounters with the pre-war world of chaos and mindless violence that is hurtling towards destruction. It’s a different kind of writing to the main story but essential to both Barricade and Steeple.

barricade-cover-jon-wallace-gollanczCOMPETITION

To celebrate the publication of Steeple the fine folks at Gollancz have given us a couple of copies of Jon’s first book, Barricade, to give away. To enter, post a comment below proving that you’re human, before midnight next Thursday 25th June. Winners will be announced next Friday. Unfortunately, this competition is only open to UK residents.

THE DEATH HOUSE by Sarah Pinborough

DeathHouse THE DEATH HOUSE

Sarah Pinborough (sarahpinborough.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£14.99

Released on 26th February 2015

Toby is a Defective. When the results of a blood test announce his death sentence he finds himself taken forcibly from his family and transported to an old manor house on a remote island in the far north. Toby is not alone: the Death House, as its residents come to know it, houses a group of children aged between 10 and 18 who are all as doomed as Toby. Watched over by Matron and her nurses, the children await the first symptoms of illness which will signal their transfer to the sanatorium on the top floor of the house. No-one ever comes back from the sanatorium.

Toby and the other boys spend their days waiting for the end, each with their own little tricks to help pass the time. Toby refuses to take the sleeping pills that are handed out before bed, and so spends every night wandering the big house alone; this is his time, his secret. When a new batch of Defectives arrive, they bring with them Clara, who quickly invades Toby’s night time domain. As animosity turns to friendship and love begins to blossom, the pair realise that there are better things to do than sit around waiting to die.

First things first: Sarah Pinborough’s latest novel, The Death House, made me cry. Now that that’s out in the open, let’s talk about what you can expect from this beautiful little book.

It’s tough to pin Pinborough down: she is, perhaps, best known for the horror fiction that began her career, through dark crime novels and adult (by all accounts) re-workings of classic fairy tales. Then she throws us a curveball: last year’s wonderful The Language of Dying and, now, The Death House. Set on a remote island in an undefined future time (it has been 100 years since snow fell in England, is the best landmark we have), Pinborough introduces us to a group of boys and girls who have been hidden away from society because they have been classed as Defective.

We’re never quite sure what it means to be Defective: each child’s symptoms are different; it only strikes children under the age of eighteen; it’s a rare occurrence now, but was once a widespread plague. What we do know, as we watch events unfold through the eyes of Toby, one of the older boys in the house, is that these children are frightened and, despite the other children around them, very much alone. Assigned to different dormitories, battle lines are drawn, one dorm against the other, a tacit competition to see which group will last the longest before one of their members succumbs to illness.

What is fascinating here is how well-developed Toby is as a character. Pinborough manages to get inside this teenage boy’s head to show us how he thinks and reacts. Through flashbacks, we see a typical teenager with a one-track mind; as his relationship with Clara develops, and love blossoms, we see how quickly he matures, how his language and mannerisms change, and how it affects his relationships with the others in the house.

It’s easy to see, as we read, some of the novels that influenced The Death House. The most obvious, probably because Pinborough references it directly in the story, is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Rather than the desert island scenario, we find ourselves in a large, remote house, in the midst of a group of largely autonomous children who have formed into a number of factions. The formation of Ashley’s church causes these factions to fragment, and re-form, in much the same way that the boys’ allegiances change through the course of Golding’s classic novel. The other – and, for me, stronger – influence that we find is that of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with the strangely emotionless and, ultimately, quite cruel Matron playing the role of Nurse Ratched.

At the centre of the novel, despite the science fiction or horror elements that set the scene, is the developing relationship between Toby and Clara. Full of innocence, it develops into the intense and emotional story of a pair of doomed lovers making the best of the very short time they have left to them. Omnia vincit amor, Virgil tells us: Love conquers all. It’s a message that forms the solid foundation of The Death House, but don’t be fooled; there is horror to come, scenes that will rock the reader to the core and drive us to question the author’s parentage. Pinborough has us in the palm of her hand from that opening line (“’They say it makes your eyes bleed. Almost pop out of your head and then bleed.’”) and there is no escape. Haunting and beautiful, The Death House will stay with you long after you’ve read the final page.

Sarah Pinborough proves yet again that she is an exceptional writer regardless of genre. And therein lies her biggest problem. I’m not sure how Gollancz aim to market this one: science fiction? Dystopia? Young adult? Either way, its audience is likely to be limited to people who read the genre in question. The Death House, Pinborough’s finest novel to date, should be required reading for everyone who enjoys spending time with a good book. A worthy successor to those great books that influenced it, The Death House is the best book you’ll read in 2015, guaranteed, and Sarah Pinborough cements her place as one of our finest living novelists.

HORNS by Joe Hill

horns HORNS

Joe Hill (joehillfiction.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£8.99

Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke the next morning with a headache…when he was swaying above the toilet, he glanced at himself in the mirror over the sink and saw he had grown horns while he slept.

Ig Perrish may not remember what he did the previous night, but he does remember the previous year, the year since the woman he had loved since they were fourteen had been brutally raped and murdered, a hideous crime for which Ig was the prime suspect. But these new additions, these horns growing from his temples, are game changers: when people see them they feel compelled to tell Ig their deepest darkest secrets, and it isn’t long before he discovers the true identity of Merrin’s killer. After that, it’s a matter of letting human nature take its course, unleashing the demon that so desperately wants to get out and sending Merrin’s killer to the hell in which he belongs.

I first read Joe Hill’s sophomore novel when it was published back in 2010; the imminent cinematic release of Alexandre Aja’s film adaptation in British cinemas was good enough reason to revisit Horns, and I’m happy to discover that it holds up well to that second read. At the centre of this dark and often blackly comic novel is Ig Perrish, a young man whose whole life has been pulled out from under him following the murder of his long-term girlfriend, Merrin Williams. Unable to provide a satisfactory alibi, Ig has been the only suspect since the murder took place a year earlier, and the lack of substantial evidence is the only thing keeping him out of prison. His new appendages, and the strange power they have over the people Ig meets, mean that he will quickly get to the bottom of the mystery.

Hill tells the story in a very non-linear form, jumping from one time period to the next, giving us brief glimpses of the relationships between the central characters – Ig, Merrin and Lee Tourneau – at various points between their initial meeting in their early teens, through young adulthood, to the present day. The identity of Merrin’s killer is revealed early in the novel, and is as shocking, at that point, for the reader as it is for Ig himself. As we get further glimpses into the lives of these people, the shock begins to wear off and we begin to see that nothing is quite as it seems or, to be more precise, quite as Ig Perrish believes it to be.

As time passes, Ig grows more and more to resemble the archetypal demon: the horns grow larger; the skin turns a deep red following an incident in a burning car; and Ig takes to carrying a pitchfork to protect himself. But there’s an interesting juxtaposition here: the more demonic Ig becomes, the more it becomes clear that he is the least demonic character in the novel. The revelations forced out of the people he meets by the horns on his head show a dark and unlikeable side to many of the people Ig loves:

“I can’t see any of my friends. I can’t go to church. Everyone stares at me. They all know what you did. It makes me want to die. And then you show up here to take me for walks. I hate when you take me for walks and people see us together. You don’t know how hard it is to pretend I don’t hate you. I always thought there was something wrong with you. The screamy way you’d be breathing after you ran anywhere. You were always breathing through your mouth like a dog, especially around pretty girls.”

This from Ig’s grandmother, Vera, who gets her comeuppance shortly afterwards in one of the novel’s many laugh-out-loud moments. The evil here is of a more human nature than the demonic one the reader might expect; there is a mundane explanation for the rape and murder of Merrin, an all-too-familiar, plucked-from-the-headlines quality that is more frightening than the man with horns around whom the story is constructed.

Hill uses the story to examine the question of faith (Ig and Merrin meet in church and for most of his short life, Ig is the very definition of humanitarian), and the difference between “good” and “evil” as concepts. Bad things happen to good people, he tells us, and sometimes good people need a little help to get their own back. Do the horns and the pitchfork make Ig Perrish a demon, or just a man with a demonic outer shell? Hill leaves it to the reader to decide.

Lacking the bone-chilling scares that he gives us in both Heart-Shaped Box and NOS4A2, Joe Hill’s Horns is no less frightening for its close examination of the evil things of which mankind is possible. This is a wonderfully dark tale with a very definite sense of humour that often leads the reader to laugh out loud.

Dale sat breathing strenuously in the muck. He looked up the shaft of the pitchfork and squinted into Ig’s face. He shaded his eyes with one hand. “You got rid of your hair.” Paused, then added, almost as an afterthought, “And grew horns. Jesus. What are you?”

“What’s it look like?” Ig asked. “Devil in a blue dress.”

An instant classic, Horns commands the reader’s attention from the first page to the last and serves as an excellent starting point for Joe Hill virgins. I, for one, can’t wait to see the film adaptation, despite the fact that the Ig in my head bears no resemblance to Daniel Radcliffe. This is a must-read, if you haven’t already, and well worth a revisit if you have.

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