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THE BONE TREE by Greg Iles

The Bone Tree - Greg Iles THE BONE TREE

Greg Iles (www.gregiles.com)

Harper (www.harpercollins.co.uk)

£8.99

With the investigation into the death of Viola Turner still very much unsolved, Penn Cage finds that his father, Dr Tom Cage, may have been involved in more than some Ku Klux Klan killings. An FBI cold case team, of which agent John Kaiser is a member, have linked the Double Eagles with one of the most well-known killings in American history, and are keen to pursue it while the momentum is good. It’s an approach that doesn’t suit Penn’s immediate need to get his father to safety, and with the leader of the Double Eagles about to take control of the Louisiana State Police, that’s looking less likely by the minute. There is one lead, a lead of almost mythical proportions: a tree in the swamp where there is enough evidence to convict all of the Double Eagles and solve one of America’s greatest mysteries, and Penn’s girlfriend, Caitlin Masters, will stop at nothing to find it.

The Bone Tree picks up immediately where Natchez Burning left off, dropping the reader back into the middle of the action as if we’d never been away. There are plenty of reasons to be excited about jumping back in: the murder of Viola Turner is still unsolved; we’ve been learning more and more about the past of Dr Tom Cage, and with luck there should be plenty more to come; and while the epic stand-off that closed book one is now in the past, there are still plenty of bad guys to keep Penn and his motley band of crusaders very much on their toes.

It’s an excitement that lasts for only a short while, I’m sorry to say. While The Bone Tree takes us back to Natchez, Mississippi, a small town where so many questions have been left unanswered, it isn’t long before Iles sets out a new agenda for this second book in the series. The murder of Tom Cage’s old nurse takes a backseat along with the murders committed by the Double Eagles during the 1960s, and The Bone Tree becomes, to all intents and purposes, a second-rate Kennedy assassination conspiracy thriller. It is, to say the least, something of an anti-climax after the pulse-pounding Natchez Burning. Couple this with the fact that the main characters become much less likeable the more time we spend in their company, their selfishness overriding any of the other qualities they may have had – particularly Penn and Caitlin – to the extent that they become almost like sulky children playing at adulthood.

Which is not to say that The Bone Tree is a bad novel. It’s just not the excellent novel that it should have been had Iles stayed on track and given us a proper follow-up to Natchez Burning. As the book ends, 850 pages later, we find that we’re none the wiser about any of the questions raised by the first book in the series: who killed Viola Turner? No idea. What’s the deal with Tom Cage and his strange and incriminating silence? No idea. Are we likely to find out in the next book? Frustratingly, no idea, because who knows where Iles will take the story next?

The book does have some glimpses of brilliance: the scenes at the Bone Tree are chilling and affecting, enough to bring a shiver to even the most hardened of readers. And Iles proves that he’s not all about the cliché, taking the unprecedented step of killing off key characters to advance the story – The Bone Tree racks up a main character body count that is worthy of Game of Thrones. It’s just a shame that the Kennedy assassination gets so much attention, and the original story becomes little more than a series of sub-plots to round out the page count.

In many ways it feels like The Bone Tree could be skipped without losing much momentum on the overall story, though it’s probably just about worth the read for the aforementioned glimpses of brilliance. Iles has a lot of work cut out for himself in book three to make us care about the central characters again, and it’s likely that many readers will only return to the trilogy’s final volume to get the answers to the questions that we expected to find in The Bone Tree. In short, it’s a disappointing novel that has the potential to wreck what could have been an excellent trilogy.

NATCHEZ BURNING by Greg Iles

Adobe Photoshop PDF NATCHEZ BURNING

Greg Iles (www.gregiles.com)

Harper (www.harpercollins.co.uk)

£7.99

April 2017 will see the release, in hardback, of the final volume of Greg Iles’ Unwritten Laws trilogy, Mississippi Blood. To help build excitement for the new book’s release, HarperCollins are running a global blog tour to get people interested in reading the first two books, Natchez Burning and The Bone Tree. I’m delighted to have been asked to take part. You’ll find my review of Natchez Burning below; be sure to check back on October 7th to find out what I thought of The Bone Tree.

Before that, though, HarperCollins have very kindly supplied me with a copy of Natchez Burning and a beautiful Greg Iles tote bag to give away to one lucky winner. To get your name in the hat, leave a comment below before midnight on Sunday 11th September. I’ll draw one name from the hat on Monday 12th September and let the lucky winner know before lunch time.

“If a man is forced to choose between the truth and his father, only a fool chooses the truth.” A great writer said that, and for a long time I agreed with him.

Penn Cage first learns of the death of his father’s old nurse when the local DA informs him that his father is the prime suspect in her murder. So begins a chain of events that will see Dr Tom Cage on the run for his life, and former prosecutor Penn trying to solve a series of forty-year-old murders in order to prove his innocence. With the help of intrepid reporter Henry Sexton, Penn Cage discovers the existence of the Double Eagles, a Klan splinter group whose crimes against the coloured community of Natchez, Mississippi covered much darker motives than those of their white-sheet-clad brethren. As Penn and Henry continue to dig, they find connections to local multimillionaire Brody Royal and the operations of New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello. No longer sure who his father really is, Penn Cage finds himself in a race against time to prove his innocence before his own family become the latest victims of the Double Eagles.

Natchez Burning is the fourth of Greg Iles’ novels to feature (former) state prosecutor Penn Cage, though it is the first volume of the so-called Unwritten Laws trilogy, which will conclude next April with the publication of Mississippi Blood. As a first-time reader of Iles’ work, I’m happy to report that no prior knowledge of the character is required to dive into this dark and intricately-woven tale of the racial tensions that still plague America’s Deep South over forty years after the work of the Civil Rights Movement.

The story focuses on a series of crimes from the central portion of the 1960s ostensibly committed by a Ku Klux Klan splinter group called the Double Eagles. At the end of 2005, as New Orleans struggles to get back on its feet following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the nearby town of Natchez, Mississippi prepares for Christmas. Viola Turner, an elderly black woman who worked for Dr Tom Cage during the early 1960s before disappearing for almost 40 years, has returned home to die. When she is found dead in her sickbed, suspicion immediately falls on Dr Cage with whom, it is reported, she had a euthanasia pact. When Tom clams up, refusing to answer the questions of his son Penn, now serving as the mayor of Natchez, Penn begins to question what he thought he knew about his father. When Dr Cage disappears, Penn’s faith in the old man is shaken to the core.

Henry Sexton, a crusading reporter who has spent years trying to get to the bottom of the Double Eagles’ reign of terror finally gets one of them to talk. Glenn Morehouse is dying of cancer, and wants to confess his sins before he dies. When Henry hears of Tom Cage’s predicament, it becomes clear that he and Penn Cage could help each other, proving Tom’s innocence and bringing down one of the richest men in America in the process. But some of the Double Eagles are still alive, and the group has grown, the reins passing to a younger generation of tougher men, who will stop at nothing to ensure their own safety.

While Natchez Burning seems, at first glance, like a hefty investment – the paperback clocks in at over 850 pages – it’s a reasonably fast-paced read, the type of book that is extremely difficult to put down once you’ve picked it up. It’s the first book in a long time that I’ve found myself sneaking a handful of paragraphs in every spare minute of the day. This is helped by the story’s relatively compressed timeline: aside from the opening chapters which give us some insight into the formation of the Double Eagles, and an introduction to some of their most important (to the story, at least) victims, the bulk of the story takes place over three days in the week before Christmas. Told from multiple viewpoints, it quickly becomes apparent to the reader – if not necessarily the characters, who each have a limited amount of knowledge – just how complex the story is while never quite giving us enough to piece together a solution: as the novel ends, Tom Cage’s motives for flight, for example, are as obscure as they were at the story’s beginning, though we begin to understand his character more as the days pass.

The story is told in a mixture of first-person present tense (from the point of view of Penn Cage) and third-person past tense for a range of other characters including Henry and Tom, Penn’s girlfriend Caitlin, and members of the Double Eagles like Sonny Thornfield and Forrest Knox. It’s an interesting approach that allows Iles to distance himself from Cage when he needs to: there are a couple of key scenes where we watch the action from another point of view and find ourselves questioning Penn’s motives, something that would have been impossible had we been watching through his eyes. While there is no doubt that Penn is the story’s hero, these scenes make him seem more human, more willing to bend the law if it means his father survives and keeps his freedom.

Natchez Burning gives an insight into the modern-day Deep South and shows that, in many respects, the darkness that enshrouded it during the 1960s is still very much in place today. “He broke the law,” one character tells Penn, “the unwritten law” as justification for the death of a black boy whose only crime was to fall in love with a white girl. What is most frightening for the modern audience, is the sense that this sentiment is as true for that character in 2005 as it was in 1964. There is a moment towards the end where Iles falls victim to cliché (the bad guy with a propensity for talk rather than action), but it’s a small blip in an otherwise excellent novel.

Dark and at times horrific, Natchez Burning is a fictional look at one of the worst periods of America’s history made more frightening by its roots in reality. It’s an examination of family and loyalty against a backdrop of racism and conspiracy. There is, in Iles’ opinion, plenty of blame to go around, and he spreads it liberally – the Ku Klux Klan, local police, the FBI. An excellent companion piece to James Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy, with which it shares many themes, Greg Iles’ Natchez Burning is an incredible piece of fiction that I – and, indeed, you, if you have not already – should have read when it was first published in 2014. With the impending publication of the trilogy’s closing volume, there is no better time to catch up with the book that started it all.

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!

GUEST POST: Bringing Solomon Creed to Life by SIMON TOYNE

Simon Toyne by Toby Madden USE Name: SIMON TOYNE

Author of: SANCTUS (2011)
                 THE KEY (2012)
                 THE TOWER (2013)
                 SOLOMON CREED (2015)

On the web: www.simontoyne.net

On Twitter: @simontoyne

Today sees the release of Simon Toyne’s new novel, Solomon Creed. To celebrate I’m very excited to welcome Simon back to Reader Dad (for a record third time!) as part of the book’s blog tour, to talk about his process for creating the fascinating characters that inhabit his stories. So, without further ado…

Who is Solomon Creed?

Bringing Solomon to life

2) CHARACTER

Some writers start with their characters, or their main character at least, and let their story grow from there. I’m the other way round. I always know, roughly, what a book is going to be about then set about populating it. This is when I indulge in one of my favourite writerly pastimes of casturbation.

Casturbation, if you are unfamiliar with the term, means the imaginary casting of the movie of your book. I start by setting up a character document and write a list of the people I need to tell the story. This can start off with things as vague as ‘Corrupt Cop dude’, it doesn’t really matter at this stage, the detail will come gradually. Once I have my list of essential characters I write a one or two line description beneath each name and start trawling the internet for photographs, looking for faces. Inevitably a lot of my characters end up looking like actors in certain movies, but not always. Sometimes a photograph from a news story will grab my attention and I’ll cut it out and paste it into the document.

This is quite a fluid process, the character descriptions growing as I write the book and the pictures often changing too. I see the document very much as a tool rather than a finished thing, a starting point and on-going reference. As an example of the fluidity of this process, while I was writing Solomon, Matt (the reader dad himself) asked me to write something on ‘Carrie at 40’ and that experience ended up informing my main female character. You can spot the reference in the book.

With my main character, Solomon Creed, I knew I wanted him to be ‘other’, not just a stranger but – ‘strange’ so he had to look extraordinary. I also knew I wanted him walking out of the desert at the start. I’m very visual and have to see things before I can write them so I use all kinds of visual queues and references. For this opening scene I re-watched the opening scene of ‘Paris,Texas’ where Harry Dean Stanton is shuffling across a vast landscape and was struck by how odd it was that he was wearing a suit – so I put Solomon in a suit and took away his shoes to add an extra element of oddness. I also re-watched ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ and gave Solomon some of the elegant awkwardness and charisma of both Peter O’Toole and David Bowie. In fact pictures of both stood in for Solomon at various stages of the writing process, though that’s not what he ended up looking like.

Another major element of Solomon’s character is that he is a man with no personal memories, a man wiped clean of his past. I remember staring at a photo of Bowie in his Thin White Duke days – “well hung and snow white tan” (actually that’s Ziggy, but it’s a fluid process remember?) – and I realised Solomon should be the same, only even whiter – a blank sheet of paper of a man. And that’s how he became an albino, someone so white he’s almost uncanny. At one point in the book he is described by another character as looking like a beautiful marble statue that has come to life. This whiteness also makes him particularly vulnerable to the harsh Arizona sun, which adds to his character and his vulnerability within the story.

I always treat location as another character in the story but my approach to that is slightly different and I’ll talk about that and research in general in the next writing blog post, here, though the Solomon Creed blog tour continues tomorrow with a Q and A here.

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SOLOMON CREED by Simon Toyne

Adobe Photoshop PDF SOLOMON CREED

Simon Toyne (www.simontoyne.net)

HarperCollins (www.harpercollins.co.uk)

£19.99

A small aircraft crashes in the desert outside the small Arizona town of Redemption. One man walks away from the wreckage, though he is unsure of whether he was actually on the plane. He is, in fact, unsure of anything, his mind wiped clean, his knowledge of who he is and where he comes from gone. He soon discovers that his name is Solomon Creed, and that he is in Redemption to save a man named James Coronado, a man who the town is burying at the time Creed arrives. Redemption, like any small town, hides many secrets, and the town elders have good reason to worry, not because Solomon Creed has arrived in their midst, but because there was a precious package on board the crashed plane, a precious package that could spell the end of the town, unless they can use Creed’s sudden appearance to their own advantage.

The eponymous hero of Simon Toyne’s new novel is a complete enigma – to himself, to those he meets, to the reader. Striking – albino-like – in appearance, he stands out, and his odd mannerisms serve only to emphasise this strange man in our minds. His immediate clash with Redemption’s chief of police and the unusual pieces of information that surface in his mind as and when he needs them – pieces of information that have nothing to do with who he is, or why he is in Redemption – give us some ideas of who he might be or, at the very least, what his past may have entailed. Toyne never – at least until the novel’s closing pages – goes farther than suggestion, and so we are left with this enigma and our own guesses as to how he ended up in this small Arizona town, and what he hopes to accomplish here.

The town itself plays an important role in the story, its history and people integral parts of the bigger picture. Like his fictional city of Ruin, this small town is perfectly-formed, and presented to the reader in such a way that we feel we know it, we know the people who inhabit it, and the dirty little secrets that they think they hide from one another. It feels like somewhere we’ve been before, yet another testament to Toyne’s ability to infuse his novels with a definite sense of place, making the location come to life in the same way that his characters do.

Solomon Creed is Simon Toyne’s first post-Sanctus venture, and is a much different beast from that lauded trilogy. Palpably tense from the opening pages, the author has crafted an intelligent, well-paced thriller that brings together the best elements of small-town America, lost treasure and Mexican drug cartels in a single, coherent, gripping whole. Interestingly, the novel does share one of the earlier trilogy’s key features: at the centre of this plot, and of the lives of the people who live in the town of Redemption, is religion (or, perhaps, Religion?), though here it is of a much more mundane variety than the secretive monks of Ruin’s Citadel. Toyne uses the town’s history, and the story of its founder, to examine the question of faith and to consider what it is that forms the foundation of these peoples’ faith.

For the most part, the story is centred around the location of a long-lost treasure hidden by Redemption’s founding father. As Solomon Creed learns more about the town, it becomes apparent that the accident that killed James Coronado may have been something much more sinister. Along with Coronado’s wife, Holly, he tries to discover why anyone would have wanted him dead, and discovers that the town’s elders may be hiding much bigger secrets than is at first apparent.

So, what is it that sets Solomon Creed apart from the multitude of action heroes? It’s the sense of mystery and the author’s wonderful ability to drip-feed the information he wants us to know to keep the story and the character fresh and engaging. It’s the way in which knowledge and useful skills come to Creed out of the blue, as if he’s connected to the Internet, networked in the literal sense; Creed is no Superman, but we get the feeling that he might be able to do anything the Man of Steel could do and more. Think of The Matrix’s Neo learning Kung Fu, and you’re close to understanding the scope of Creed’s untapped mental resources. And therein lies his defining trait: Creed is not an action hero, not in the traditional sense; he is a man with a purpose, a man more likely to think his way out of a sticky situation than shoot his way out, but a dangerous man to be on the wrong side of nonetheless.

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.

COMPETITION: Win a Copy of Jonathan Freedland’s THE 3RD WOMAN

The 3rd Woman Jacket image THE THIRD WOMAN

Jonathan Freedland (www.jonathanfreedland.com)

HarperCollins (www.harpercollins.co.uk)

£12.99

To celebrate the release on July 2nd of Jonathan Freedland’s exciting new thriller, The 3rd Woman, which I will be reviewing here soon, those lovely folks at HarperCollins Publishers have given us three copies of the novel to give away. It couldn’t be simpler to be in with a chance to win: simply click here to send me an email with the answer to the question below as well as your name and postal address:

The 3rd Woman is Jonathan Freedland’s first novel published under his own name, but it’s not his first published novel. Jonathan has had a successful career publishing thrillers under a well-know pseudonym. What is it?

Entries must be received by midnight on Thursday 9th July, and the winners will be notified on Friday 10th July. This competition is open to UK residents only.

Don’t forget to follow the The Third Woman tour (see the banner for details), keep up to date with the buzz on Twitter and check back next week when I will be posting my own thoughts on the novel.

JFBLOGTOURBANNER

#CarrieAt40: Dancing to Stephen King’s Tune by SIMON TOYNE

The-Tower-Simon-Toyne SIMON TOYNE

On the web: www.simontoyne.net

On Twitter: @simontoyne

When I was asked to write a piece about when I first read Carrie I had to fess up that I had never actually read it. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it was because somehow I knew what the story was about and had seen pictures of Sissy Spacek drenched in blood and was probably a bit scared. It’s odd that it slipped through the net as, like most writers of my generation and most readers too for that matter, Stephen King is the benchmark. Even people I knew at school who didn’t read, read Stephen King. I’ve read tons of King, I read The Stand twice and it’s over a thousand pages long – and yet I never got round to Carrie.

DeadZoneMy own introduction to the court of the King happened aged around ten or eleven via a second-hand copy of The Dead Zone that my local library was getting rid of it for 10p. It had a picture of an American style license plate on the cover with the name of the book spelled out in embossed letters. [Editor’s note: Google is being singularly unhelpful with regards tracking down this cover,  so here’s the US first edition cover instead.] The plate was bashed and a little burned and hinted at violence, as did the title whereas Carrie was a girly girl’s name and I can’t remember what the cover looked like. Maybe if the library had been selling an old copy of Carrie I would have read it then but it was The Dead Zone that got me first and Carrie just slipped through the cracks somehow until it became one of those books that sort of missed its slot, one that I knew I should read and would undoubtedly enjoy but just never got round to. The Secret History is another one of those for me, but that is, quite literally, another story.

Also Carrie became much bigger to me than just a book. I picked up so much lore about it that maybe I became worried that the thing itself would be a disappointment. I knew, for example, that when Brian De Palma was looking for young actors for his film version he shared casting sessions with another young director needing unknowns for a little space opera he was prepping called Star Wars. I’ve often wondered if the other Carrie (Fisher) auditioned for Carrie White and if John Travolta tried out for Han Solo and whether if he’d got the part we might all have been spared Battleship Earth. One can dream…

I also know that King’s wife Tabitha fished the first two or three pages of Carrie out of the bin after he had decided it wasn’t working. I know he then sold the paperback rights for $400,000 dollars and this was in the mid 70’s when that was a LOT of money rather than just a lot. I know that when he sold it he was living with his young family in a trailer and struggling to make ends meet. Maybe I was so weighed down with baggage that I felt like I’d already read it or didn’t need to.

Anyway, now I have read it.

And it’s good.

It doesn’t feel like a forty year old book at all. The collage technique of using different narrative scraps to tell the story feels very modern and assured, like a literary pre-cursor to the found-footage movies that squeeze their scares out of the notion that all of it might just be real. Some of the scraps that make up the collage are slightly less successful than others, it has to be said, particularly the extracts from memoirs of the survivors that read more like diary entries than genuine autobiography. These fragments are so short, however, they never derail the pace. In fact in the main it’s a very spare book, especially for a writer known for his doorsteps. There’s almost no fat in it, like it’s been very carefully crafted then edited really tightly, something many of his later books lack I think. Don’t get me wrong I still love the man and worship at his hem etc. but I do tend to find myself skipping great chunks of some of his later books. I do the same in Dickens so it’s not exactly a diss. I just find, sometimes, I’m not quite as enthralled by the architecture as the author is and am just hungry to find out what happens next.

What really struck me about Carrie, though, reading it forty years after it was published, is that it is so obviously a Stephen King book. His voice is already there, fully formed or formed enough so that you can hear who it is straight out of the blocks. He’d written three other novels before Carrie and it shows. There’s a sure-footedness to the voice that feels bedded in and comfortable. He’d already found his rhythm and the book hums along with it. And we’ve all been dancing to his tune ever since. Amen to that.

Simon Toyne was born in the North East of England in 1968.

After nearly twenty years working in commercial television he quit his job and took seven months off to write a novel. It took two and a half years to finish it. Fortunately Sanctus got picked up by an agent and then by lots of publishers all over the world. He has no idea what would have happened if it hadn’t. He is now regularly compared, both favourably and unfavourably, to Dan Brown, even though he does not possess a tweed jacket.

COMPETITION: Charles Cummings’ A COLDER WAR #MoleHunt

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A COLDER WAR

Charles Cummings (www.charlescumming.co.uk)

HarperCollins (www.harpercollins.co.uk)

£12.99

Those fine folks over at HarperCollins’ Killer Reads are running a mole hunt this week to celebrate the publication of Charles Cummings’ latest novel, A Colder War. To be in with a chance of winning a Kindle, all you have to do is visit each of the five blogs in the banner to the left over the course of this week.

Each blog will have two videos, and two associated questions. Take the first letter from the answer to each of those questions to find the identity of the mole. All you have to do to be in with a chance of winning is email Killer Reads with the name of the mole before midnight on Friday 9th May. Full terms and conditions can be found here.

So, without further ado, on to today’s videos and questions.

 

Question 1: What is the name of the journalist working for The Guardian who broke the National Security Agency revelations from Edward Snowden?

Question 2: The Spanish Game by Charles Cumming featured which (now defunct) Basque separatist organisation?

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.

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