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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.

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.

MR MERCEDES by Stephen King

MR MERCEDES - Stephen King MR MERCEDES

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£20.00

On a foggy April morning, in an anonymous, recession-hit Midwestern city, Brady Hartfield ploughs a stolen Mercedes Benz into a group of people queued for a job fair, killing nine and injuring many more. Six months later, Detective William Hodges retires from the City Police Force, the Mercedes killing one of the unsolved cases he hands over to his partner. Living alone and spending his retirement watching television begins to take its toll and Bill Hodges starts to contemplate suicide. When he receives a letter from someone claiming to be the Mercedes Killer – or Mr Mercedes, as Bill comes to call him – he finds a new reason to go on. Deciding to keep the letter secret from his old partner for now, Bill Hodges goes back to the one loose thread that never made any sense: the owner of the stolen car, and the means by which Mr Mercedes managed to gain access. As Hodges’ investigation progresses, so the madness that drives Brady Hartfield grows, his original plan to help the retired policeman on his way to suicide replaced by something bolder and more public, something that would make his trick with the Mercedes look positively innocent in comparison.

Stephen King’s latest novel is being marketed as a departure for the Master of Horror, though for Constant Reader, the distinction is less clear. All of the elements that make a Stephen King novel are here: strong story, strong characters and that inimitable voice that guides us through the book. Mr Mercedes is, as advertised, a straight crime novel (perhaps a better fit for the Hard Case Crime line than last year’s supernatural-tinted Joyland) but at its core, it’s a return to one of King’s favourite topics: good versus evil. The recent revelation by King that it is the first of a proposed trilogy – with the second book due to drop next year – is just the icing on the cake.

While there are elements of mystery for the reader (just how did Brady get access to the Mercedes, for example), we are aware from the outset of who the perpetrator of the crime is, how he has so much information on Bill Hodges and, to a certain extent at least, what his plans for the immediate future are. Mr Mercedes is not so much a whodunit as an examination of these two men, both at different ends of the spectrum. On the one side we have Brady Hartfield, a cold-blooded murderer who lives with his alcoholic mother and spends his life trying to put a civilised face on the monster that lives just beneath the surface. Brady is one of King’s more insane creations, and the glimpse we get inside his head shows the type of horror at which King has always been adept: the horror in the everyday; the real-life insanity that leads to, to borrow the old cliché, man’s inhumanity to man. Like Under the Dome‘s Jim Rennie, Brady Hartfield is a character that gets under the reader’s skin, and whose demise – hopefully a brutal and slow one – we hope for almost from the moment we meet him.

Retired Detective K (for Kermit) William Hodges is the opposite side of the coin. Like King himself (and there has been a definite trend in this direction of late), Bill is a man in his later years who, without the job to keep him going, and the empty space left by his ex-wife and grown-up daughter, finds himself in something of a rut. Brady, a man with incredibly accurate insight into the human condition, sees this as a weakness, not counting on Bill’s obsession with the case that he left unsolved, or on the old man’s relationship with Jerome Robinson, the local kid who does his lawn and helps when Bill has trouble with technology. Given a new lease of life by the letter from Mr Mercedes, Bill – with the help of Jerome and the sister of Olivia Trelawney, whose grey Mercedes was used to kill nine people over a year previously – decides that he is the city’s best shot at catching this elusive and obviously unbalanced individual.

As you would expect from a Stephen King novel, there’s something down-to-earth and unpretentious about Mr Mercedes. Maybe it’s that familiar voice that has guided us through countless other tales, or the pop culture and topical references scattered liberally throughout the book. Starting slow and taking time to introduce us to the characters, King throws a couple of curve balls – some in our favour, others not – before ramping up the pace in the final quarter or so of the book. The constant switching of action between the two main protagonists keeps the reader on their toes and ensures that for the last hundred pages or so, it is nigh on impossible to set Mr Mercedes down.

While there are plenty of familiar tricks here, despite the shift in genre from what we’re used to from King, there are also some potentially interesting deviations from the usual formula. Unlike the majority of King’s novels, the action here takes place not in the author’s native Maine, but in an unnamed (which is unusual in itself) city in the American Midwest (most likely Ohio, based on the clues dropped throughout). The self-references, too, are handled in a slightly different way, with both Christine and It getting a mention early in the story, but as the well-known pieces of fiction that they are, rather than the usual in-world ties that we’ve come to expect.

‘Creepy as hell. You ever see that TV movie about the clown in the sewer?’

Hodges shook his head. Later – only weeks before his retirement – he bought a DVD copy of the film, and Pete was right. The mask-face was very close to the fact of Pennywise, the clown in the movie.

And in one throw-away line towards the end of the novel, King creates another link between his own worlds and those of son Joe Hill in a reference to the character at the centre of Hill’s debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box.

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

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

The 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.

NOS4R2 by Joe Hill

NOS-4R211-669x1024 NOS4R2

Joe Hill (joehillfiction.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£18.99

Released: 30th May 2013

The Brat was nine years old the first time she rode over the covered bridge that crossed the distance between Lost and Found.

Nine-year-old Victoria “Vic” McQueen’s new bicycle brings with it an uncanny new ability: when she rides it across the condemned structure that is the Shorter Way bridge it always takes her somewhere different. Her destination is driven by her desire to find something lost. Looking for an explanation, she finds herself in Here, Iowa where she first hears about Charlie Manx. Manx shares Vic’s ability to travel; his vehicle a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with a vanity plate that reads NOS4R2, his ultimate destination Christmasland, a wondrous place where it is Christmas all year round, and where only children can go. Twenty-five years later, a Vic McQueen who has lived a hard life as the result of her gift finds herself searching for Charlie Manx once more. This time the stakes are much higher, because this time Vic’s own son is a passenger in that 1938 Wraith.

Joe Hill’s third novel is undoubtedly his most ambitious to date. Much broader in scale that both Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, the novel follows Vic McQueen from childhood through her early teenage years and reconnects with her in the present day, a woman scarred by the experiences of her childhood, most of which have been glossed over in the retelling to the point where she has convinced herself that the stories are reality and the magic bike and the bridge that leads to anywhere merely a figment of her imagination. Despite her strange gift, and her father’s unflattering pet name – The Brat – it is easy for the reader to identify with Vic: as we follow her growth from childhood to adulthood, Hill ensures that every twist and turn of her life is not only believable, but also inevitable, so that we can’t help but root for her, and hope that, for Vic at least, there is a happy ending.

On the other side of the coin is Charlie Manx, a vile conscienceless creature whose sole purpose in life is to feed the insatiable hunger of Christmasland by bringing abducted children to live within its otherworldly boundaries. Manx is a vision straight from the nightmares of parents everywhere and Hill takes him to the bounds of caricature without actually overstepping the mark. What we, the reader, feels goes beyond dislike for the man; Manx instils in us a deep-seated sense of fear, and sends a chill down the spine of even the most hardened of horror readers.

“Your boy, Josiah,” Charlie Manx said to her, his voice grating and harsh. “There’s a place for him in Christmasland, with the other children. I could give him a new life. I could give him a nice smile. I could give him nice new teeth.”

Hearing him say her son’s name was worse than having Manx’s hand on her wrist or blood on her feet[…]. Hearing this man, convicted murderer and child molester, speak of her son made her dizzy, genuinely dizzy, as if she were in a glass elevator, rushing quickly into the sky, the world dropping away beneath her.

The title of the book is drawn from the vanity plate on Manx’s Rolls-Royce (interestingly, the original American title of NOS4A2 makes more sense to me, but that’s probably down to the idiosyncrasies of the Northern Irish accent) and, when pronounced correctly, provides the perfect description for this insane man.

Around these two central characters we find a whole host of players in supporting roles: Vic’s parents whose separation seems inevitable to everyone but nine-year-old Vic; Lou, the young man she will eventually marry; the creepy and decidedly underused Gasmask Man; and Maggie, the stammering librarian of Here, Iowa who has found a unique use for Scrabble tiles. There are plenty more, but these are shining examples, ordinary people in extraordinary situations who never feel less than three-dimensional.

It seems churlish to review Joe Hill’s novel and compare it to the works of his father, but Stephen King tends to form the benchmark against which many people (myself included) compare new horror fiction. NOS4R2 is the first of Hill’s novels where the similarity shines through. Much of the novel feels like early King; I was most often put in mind of Christine, but I can’t quite put my finger on why. The novel also contains numerous references to King’s various worlds and works, most noticeably in the form of a mention or two of Mid-World. His decision to embrace the work of King so obviously seems surprising, given his initial route to publication.

Which is not to say that Joe Hill is a tired old re-tread (or the second coming, depending on your point of view) of Stephen King. As he has already demonstrated is his previous works, and continues to do so with NOS4R2, he is a fresh and exciting voice in a sometimes weary and unoriginal genre. Little stylistic tics (one chapter runs into the next by including the next chapter’s title – often a place name – in the final sentence of the current one), wonderfully-wrought characters, and a knack for the descriptive (“Vic smelled the vast vault filled with books before she saw it, because her eyes required time to adjust to the cavernous dark. She breathed deeply of the scent of decaying fiction, disintegrating history, and forgotten verse, and observed for the first time that a room full of books smelled like dessert: a sweet snack made of figs, vanilla, glue, and cleverness.”) combine to produce a novel that is as beautifully-written as it is terrifying.

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.

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