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The 2014 Round-Up

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

THE ROUND-UP

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

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

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

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

MATT’S TOP TEN DEBUTS OF 2014

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

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

   
RED RISING by Pierce Brown (Hodder & Stoughton)

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

   
THE UNDERTAKING by Audrey Magee (Atlantic Books)

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

   
BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman (Harper Voyager)

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

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

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

   
THE KILLING SEASON by Mason Cross (Orion)

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

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

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

   
THE AXEMAN’S JAZZ by Ray Celestin (Mantle)

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

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

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

 

MATT’S TOP TEN NON-DEBUTS OF 2014

THE SUDDEN ARRIVAL OF VIOLENCE by Malcolm Mackay (Mantle)

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

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

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

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

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

   
ABOVE by Isla Morley (Two Roads)

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

   
THE UNQUIET HOUSE by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)

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

   
MR MERCEDES by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

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

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

   
THE THREE by Sarah Lotz (Hodder & Stoughton)

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

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

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

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

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

   
STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador)

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

   
PERFIDIA by James Ellroy (William Heinemann)

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

   
REVIVAL by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

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

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

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

 

COMING SOON…

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

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

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

THE HOUSE ON THE HILL by Kevin Sampson

THE HOUSE ON THE HILL - Kevin Sampson THE HOUSE ON THE HILL

Kevin Sampson

Jonathan Cape (www.randomhouse.co.uk/about-us/about-us/…/jonathan-cape)

£14.99

Still on extended leave following the Rozaki case, DCI Billy McCartney is surprised when a girl barely out of her teens turns up on his doorstep and claims to be the daughter of Moroccan drug magnate Hassan El Glaoui. The girl’s appearance, and cry for help, takes Mac back to the last time he had dealings with El Glaoui. Ibiza in 1990; a bad batch of Ecstasy tablets has already killed a handful of kids, and Mac’s job is to ensure that they’re taken off the market before the season kicks off. Along with colleague, DS Camilla "Millie" Baker, he sets up as a potential buyer and dealer, and insinuates himself into the company of John-John Hamilton, a Liverpool-based dealer who has the Ibiza market more or less sewn up. But things take a turn for the worse and it is only now, twenty-three years later, with the arrival of this girl at his house, that Billy McCartney has a chance to set things right.

The second DCI Billy McCartney novel, The House on the Hill, features two stories in one, both inextricably linked to form a single narrative spanning twenty-three years. Opening in London in 1990, we meet a much younger Mac than in The Killing Pool, as he prepares to embark on an undercover mission to Ibiza to try to infiltrate the island’s drug trade. This Mac, perhaps because of the age difference, or because those of us who have read the first book have a better understanding of who he is, comes across as a lot less ambiguous, more idealistic, someone who is, undeniably, on the side of what is good and right. Alongside UDYCO chief, "Jus" Roig, whose motives are questionable at best, and Ibiza’s Chief Molina, who is outright corrupt, McCartney is almost a saint, albeit one who is a little bit too sure of his own abilities. It’s this cockiness that leads to disaster, and shapes the man McCartney will become.

The second half of the novel takes place in present day, and sees McCartney once again taking on the role of drug user and dealer to infiltrate El Galoui’s Red Fort in the mountains of Morocco, following the arrival of the young Yasmina at his door.  This time around, we find ourselves in the company of a much more circumspect Mac, a man who is well aware that he has been given a rare second chance to put things right, and who is determined not to mess things up.

The House on the Hill is a much different beast from McCartney’s first outing. Told in the third person, rather than from multiple first-person viewpoints, the action seems much less intense (probably due to the longer timescales), even if the consequences are just as dire. Sampson – very successfully – avoids any mention of the bombshell that closes The Killing Pool, though Mac does have some telling mannerisms that will be obvious to those who have read the first novel. This fact, coupled with the earlier setting, means that The House on the Hill works as a standalone novel, but one that provides extra rewards for the returning audience.

Aside from McCartney himself, very few of the supporting characters appear in this latest instalment. The Rozaki brothers, whose operation is at the centre of The Killing Pool, put in brief appearances, as young men just starting out in the business, employees of John-John Hamilton. The biggest difference, perhaps, is the shift of location from Sampson’s native Liverpool to the tourist-infested Ibiza, and the arid mountains of Morocco. Happily, Sampson manages to transport the reader to both places, his sense of place no less powerful for the change of scenery, evoking especially the sleaze and heavy bass beat that drew hordes of (mainly) British tourists to the White Island in the early nineties. It’s a risky move, taking the character from his established milieu so early in the series, but it works well, and fleshes out some of McCartney’s background, as well as giving us a more in-depth look at what drives this man than the frantic pace of the first book allowed.

Unusually for a noirish piece of this ilk, Sampson spends some time examining social issues through the eyes of his characters. As with the first novel, sexism plays a large part in the first half of the novel – especially where the Spanish policemen are concerned – while the latter half of the novel allows Sampson to examine the Arab Spring, and the question of sexual orientation and gender in Islamist regions.

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

GUEST POST: INFLUENCES–5 Books by KEVIN SAMPSON

Kevin-Sampson-web Name: KEVIN SAMPSON

Author of: THE KILLING POOL (2013)
                 THE HOUSE ON THE HILL (2014)

On Twitter: @ksampsonwriter

Kevin Sampson ­ blog tourTo celebrate the launch of Kevin Sampson’s latest novel, THE HOUSE ON THE HILL, the second book in the DCI Billy McCartney series (which will be reviewed here tomorrow), I asked him to talk about the books that have influenced his own crime writing. His – rather eclectic – list follows.

I would like to thank Kevin for taking the time to put this list together, and would urge you to check out the other stops on the THE HOUSE ON THE HILL Tour.

1. Greenmantle by John Buchan

Buchan is of course best known for his first Richard Hannay adventure, The 39 Steps. But it was Hannay’s second escapade, Greenmantle that captivated me as a young reader. Hannay is a true Brit, true grit, Edwardian maverick espionage action hero, taking on complex cases and nefarious villains who threaten world peace. Greenmantle was the first novel that transported me to exotic destinations – Lisbon, Budapest, Belgrade, Constantinople – via the old-fashioned medium of the ripping yarn. Greenmantle gave me an avid wanderlust, but its 5-D characters and sheer exuberant storytelling made me want to write about these places, too. Perhaps some of this has filtered down into the McCartney books. In Mac’s latest, The House On The Hill, he undertakes fearsome challenges in Ibiza and Morocco – and many of the characters he encounters – like “Jus” Roig and Honest Ahmed could have come straight from the pages of Buchan.

2. Papillon by Henri Charriere

I read Papillon as a 13 year-old and it blew me away. It was the first book of its kind – a novelised True Crime memoir – to plug the reader into a gritty, dark, living, breathing underworld. The opening pages, set in the criminal community around 70s Montmartre in Paris, still live with me today – portraits of petty crooks, pimps, drunks and gamblers, low-life chancers who are “good with a knife.” An ex-con himself, Charriere does not ennoble or romanticise his world. Characters are presented for what they are – grifters trying to get by in an unforgiving city.

It’s as real a depiction of a big-city underworld as you’ll encounter in print, but the way the book opens out after Papillon’s conviction, into an adrenaline-charged escape thriller set against a Caribbean/Venezulan backdrop is a page-turning bonus. Concealing money in the sphincter, confronting leprosy, bartering for a boat, springing a leak, being chased by the coast guard, eating your first meal in days…everything is vividly rendered, like a badlands travelogue. Yet, for all the vivid descriptions of life among a remote native community and the sheer thrill of the many chases, it was those early descriptions of the Big City underbelly that made their mark, and still live on in my imagination.

3. A Sense Of Freedom by Jimmy Boyle

A few years after discovering Papillon, A Sense Of Freedom had a similar impact. I was 15, enduring a rainy fortnight on a caravan site in North Wales, browsing the paperback carousel in the campsite’s shop. Based on a promising blurb about thug life in 60s Glasgow, I started leafing through A Sense Of Freedom. Jimmy Boyle’s autobiographical account of growing up in the late 50s/early 60s Gorbals at the height of its gang culture had me gripped from the start. I’d read most of the New English Library titles like Skinhead, Suedehead etc but this was the real thing. In a similar way to Papillon, Boyle’s story went way, way beyond the clichéd hard-man tales of the time. Yes, it’s a chilling, unflinching account of how a kid can be socialised into a life of crime and violence, but A Sense Of Freedom opens out into a rigorous polemic about the penal system, and a moving philosophical tract about the nature and the essence of freedom. First published in 1977, it is thoroughly deserving of a 40th Anniversary re-issue, and re-evaluation.

4. LA Confidential by James Ellroy

A Noir masterpiece, plain and simple. I have read LA Confidential 10 or 12 times, and with each new reading still uncover nuances I’d previously missed. For me, this is a definitive and uniquely brilliant crime book – one that extolls complexity as a virtue. The third in Ellroy’s Los Angeles quartet, LA Confidential is comfortably (or uncomfortably) my favourite. Weaving its many narrative threads using multiple points of view alongside a clever National Enquirer-style front-page splash device, LA Confidential transports us to the corrupt and decadent heart of America’s most fabled city. Embracing – or exposing – themes of child abuse, drug addiction, racism, prostitution, hypocrisy, corruption, bribery, underhand building contracts, blackmail, racketeering, murder, vote-rigging and police brutality in its first 30 pages or so, LA Confidential uses the City of Angels as both pungent backdrop and potent symbol of the quintessential struggle between Good and Evil. As with any classic noir, the reader is left to decipher which is which.

5. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Returning to the question of Inspiration – that vitamin-blast to your creative muse that turns the kernel of an idea into something that you act upon and realise – the Stieg Larsson phenomenon was the final motivating factor that transformed the notion of a mordant, Liverpool-based drug crime specialist into the fictional reality of DCI Billy McCartney. Each of the other books I’ve mentioned here had an influence; each of them left its mark. So, too, did TV dramas like The Sopranos, The Wire, Spiral, The Killing…but it was Larsson wot made me do it, guv.

I thought Liverpool was as evocative a setting for a crime series as any major port city and the skeleton of Billy Mac began to form. Initially, I fastened upon this idea of simultaneously publishing the four distinct “chapters” of The Killing Pool or Gangsterland as it was, back then. But, in spite of my own reverence for complex plot and storytelling, I was nervous that McCartney’s first instalment might be tough-going all in one, dark hit.

Then I read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and marvelled at its scale, its ambition and its sheer darkness. Like Ellory, Stieg Larsson takes on the bleakest and blackest worlds. In the wake of chilling revelations about institutional abuse and cover-up in children’s homes, TGWTDT is horribly prescient – yet it is never sensationalist or overtly graphic, partly as a result of Larsson’s creating a cast of magnificent characters to guide his readers through his darkest alleyways.

I’ve never read a novel and come away, thinking – I can do that. But there are definitely principles you imbibe via osmosis from reading great books. With all the books I’ve highlighted here, there’s a common thread: if you can devise an ingenious and engaging story, set in an intriguing place peopled with flawed but memorable characters who the reader relates to, or sides with, or strenuously takes against then your fictional world stands a chance of coming to life. That such a physically huge book as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo succeeds in engaging you from Page 1 and transports you on a trans-Nordic express right to the last page is a testament to Larsson’s absolute command of his oeuvre. A bestseller by right, and a factor in the shaping of McCartney.

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.

THE KILLING POOL by Kevin Sampson

THE KILLING POOL - Kevin Sampson THE KILLING POOL

Kevin Sampson

Jonathan Cape (http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/about-us/…/jonathan-cape)

£12.99

Detective Chief Inspector Billy McCartney is part of Merseyside Police’s Drug Squad, his focus currently on the Rozaki brothers who have a monopoly on Liverpool’s heroin trade. When McCartney’s informant, the youngest of the Rozaki brothers is found dead and dismembered in a park, McCartney knows he has limited time before full scale war breaks out in the city. Hiding the identity of the body, McCartney starts to look into the young man’s death and the disappearance of his girlfriend. As he digs, he finds connections to older crimes, other Drug Squad operations that have a direct and personal impact on him, and which are coming back to haunt him as his career, and his life, seem to be falling apart at the seams.

Kevin Sampson’s ninth novel, the first of a series of novels featuring DCI Billy McCartney, takes us to a dark and unsavoury side of Liverpool completely at odds with the city’s revamped look and one-time European Capital of Culture status. It’s a side of the city that we’re unlikely to see in any brochures: a melting pot of crime and drug trafficking that has changed little over the almost thirty year period that the novel covers. Against this background, Sampson introduces us to a cast of police and criminals where the dividing line between “good” and “evil” is much more subtle than whether the person carries a badge.

The story is told in first person, from the point of view of a handful of key characters. For the most part, we find ourselves in the head of McCartney, but other characters get the chance to stick their oar in from time to time, giving us a rounder, more complete view of what’s going on than we might have got from a more traditional first person narrative, while providing a deeper understanding of these characters than we might have received from a third-person narrative. For the most part, the characters are living, breathing people, each with a unique voice, and distinctive vocal tics. There are others, however, perhaps deliberately, who feel a little two-dimensional, caricatures of stereotypes; I’m thinking mainly of Alfie Manners here, a sexist, racist policeman whose attitudes and outlooks don’t change at all in the twenty-eight years between the time we first meet him and the main present-day setting of the story. He’s a dinosaur, but he is a known entity, a character we have seen before and from whom we know what to expect.

McCartney is the polar opposite, and is the perfect character to keep us coming back for more. A drug user himself, McCartney harbours a grudge against his superior officer for a perceived slight during an operation fifteen years earlier. Now, as things start to come to a head, McCartney finds himself butting heads with that same officer, Hubert Hodge, once more. What are the man’s motives? Can he be trusted? These are questions to which the reader has no answer, despite the fact that we have more insight into Hodge than McCartney ever could. The drug use and McCartney’s past leave the reader unsure where even his loyalties lie, but he has a certain quality that makes us want to trust him, makes us hope that he will turn out to be a good guy when everything is said and done.

What David Peace did for the West Yorkshire Constabulary of the late seventies and early eighties, and James Ellroy did for the Los Angeles Police Department of the forties and fifties, so Kevin Sampson does for the Merseyside Police of the early eighties through to the present day. At once a tale of crime and drugs, The Killing Pool is also an examination of the widespread police corruption that allows the evil to not only exist, but to thrive in one of the UK’s most important industrial and tourist centres. In Hubert Hodge, Sampson presents modern day England’s answer to Dudley Smith – a man of such moral ambiguity, with so much power, and the uncanny ability to cover his own tracks that it is impossible to know what he is capable of, and whether he should be trusted. While he plays a key role in the novel, he spends most of it lurking at the edges of the action, and of our consciousness. He is, for this reader at least, the crowning glory of a rock-solid example of what British crime fiction can and should be.

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.

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