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An Interview with ZEN CHO

str2_shgzencho_sharmilla_12 FOR ONLINE Name: ZEN CHO

Author of: SORCERER TO THE CROWN (2015)

On the web: zencho.org

On Twitter: @zenaldehyde

Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer of SFF and romance. She was born and raised in Selangor, read law at Cambridge, and currently lives in London. Her debut historical fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown is out now in the UK, published by Pan Macmillan.

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

Thanks for having me!

Sorcerer to the Crown is garnering lots of favourable reviews, and has been compared to everything from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to the work of Terry Pratchett. The obvious question to start us off, then, is: what or who were the influences for Sorcerer and how far from the original idea is the finished book?

You’ve named two big influences on me! Terry Pratchett’s books taught me that writing could be serious and smart while also being funny and silly. And I love Susanna Clarke’s writing – it’s so erudite and elegant. I don’t know that Sorcerer to the Crown is anything like their stuff, but I’m certainly a huge fan of both of them.

I did write Sorcerer in conversation with other books, though, and the direct influences are actually P. G. Wodehouse, with his absurd young gentlemen, and Heyer’s frothy romances.

A lot of the basic elements of the original idea have survived into the finished book, but I spent more than a year revising Sorcerer to the Crown and it certainly looks very different from the first draft. One of the biggest differences is that Prunella Gentleman, who’s one of the two main characters, became much more central. In earlier drafts you saw her from the outside, but she became much more of a co-protagonist in revisions.

A fun and magical “Regency Romp” it might be, but Sorcerer also has a very serious side that is as relevant today as it was in the book’s setting. The novel examines, in some depth, the question prejudice, both the racism directed at the book’s two main characters, and the sexism aimed at Prunella and the other women with magical abilities. One of the main criticisms aimed at SFF works is the lack of diversity, and you have gone almost to the opposite extreme. How important were these themes to you when you were writing the book, and did you encounter any difficulties in finding the right balance between story and “lecture” (which, to my mind, you have managed perfectly)?

Good, I’m glad it didn’t feel too much like a lecture! That was actually one of my main challenges when writing the book: I wanted it to be fun, but I had these quite serious ideas I was interested in exploring as well, and it was a hard line to walk. I didn’t go into the project saying, "I’m going to write the most diverse book ever" – there’s lots of axes of diversity it doesn’t address. But these themes were my entry-point for the story. From the very outset I wanted it to be about a black man in Regency London and about an irrepressible female magician in a society that disapproved of female magic, and once you make those decisions the rest of the story unfolds from there.

There is a beauty to the language you use in the book, a very formal English that you manage to maintain for the duration of the story. What sort of research did you need to do to find the right voice, the right sentence structure to ensure the story fit into the Regency setting?

I did a lot of research on Regency England because I wanted the world to feel convincing and complete. So I made these lists of what they would have worn and what they would have eaten and so on, so I could make references to them that would flesh out the setting. When it comes to the language, I’ve always enjoyed the Regency "voice" – several of my favourite authors have that voice, whether it’s an assumed voice or just their actual voice, like Jane Austen, Patrick O’Brian, Georgette Heyer and so on. Getting to play with that voice was one of the main attractions of writing a novel set in Regency London. I read a lot of books written during and set in that period, including diaries and letters as well as fiction – I love reading people’s correspondence so it was a great excuse.

And speaking of research: you have created a detailed magical world, both in England and in Fairyland. Was there much research involved in getting the details right: the structure of the Society, for example, or the different creatures that inhabit the magical realm of fairy?

The structure of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers was built piecemeal in response to what the plot required, but of course it’s supposed to sound a bit like the actual Royal Society. I have no idea how similar it is to the real Royal Societies and how they’re structured, but it’s to be expected that thaumaturges will do things a little differently …

With the different creatures in Fairy, I’m quite nerdy about supernatural beings and magical creatures and because of my cultural background I’m aware of lots of different sorts. I included magical creatures from different cultures because I wanted the world to feel convincingly like ours – large and full of different types of people and things and stories.

Sorcerer to the Crown is the first in a proposed series. Can you talk about where the story will take us next, what is likely to become of Zacharias and Prunella?

Book 2 is very much a work in progress so even I don’t entirely know where it will end up! I can say that Zacharias and Prunella will make a reappearance, along with a few other familiar faces, but the story will also follow the adventures of a couple of new characters. There’s a couple of explosions and there will be at least one mistaken elopement.

Beyond the scope of Sorcerer, what authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

I’m influenced by the authors, primarily British, I read as a child – so Edith Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones and the like. More recently I’ve been inspired by other Commonwealth writers – the historical adventure novels of Amitav Ghosh, for example, and the elegant science fiction of Karen Lord.

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

I’d like to write a book that is like Stella Benson’s Living Alone. It’s quite an obscure novel about a witch in London during the Great War. It’s very sad and funny and whimsical, and just on the right side of twee (in my opinion). My version would probably be less sad and more Asian.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Zen Cho look like?

I wake up at 9-10 am and have a look at what’s going on on social media over coffee and breakfast. After some futzing around I settle down to writing. When I’m actively drafting a novel (as distinct from planning and outlining or revising) I have a daily wordcount I’ll be aiming for and I use a Pomodoro app to help me keep on track – you write for 25 minutes, take a break, then go for another 25 minutes, etc. That’s my main job of the day, but I’ll also take time out from fiction writing to deal with what I think of as the "busy work" – dealing with emails, writing blog posts, updating my website and so on. I usually also check my day job emails at least once a day to make sure nothing’s on fire at the office. Because I take breaks throughout the day I usually work into the evening.

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

Keep going, enjoy writing for its own sake, and don’t worry about the externals too much. Do it regularly. Don’t be afraid of failure.

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

I’m reading The Letters of Abigaill Levy Franks, 1733-1748, which is sort of for business. For pleasure I’m reading a novel called Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant, which is about a capable young woman who overhauls the society of a small Victorian town.

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

Not really! People have proposed fantasy casting for Prunella and Zacharias to me, but I don’t watch much TV or film so it’s not something I’ve thought about myself. I secretly think it’d make a better BBC miniseries than Hollywood movie, but I guess that’s already been done with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell …

And finally, on a lighter note…

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

It would have been nice to have had the chance to meet Diana Wynne Jones. I love her work. If we imagine it happening at a con bar I’d probably have a gin or tonic. I don’t know what tipple she would have gone for!

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

Thanks for the questions!

SORCERER TO THE CROWN by Zen Cho

9781447299486 SORCERER TO THE CROWN

Zen Cho (zencho.org)

Macmillan (www.panmacmillan.com)

£16.99

Regency London in a time of magical upheaval. The Sorcerer Royal is dead, his staff passed on to his successor, but his familiar gone. His successor has split opinion within the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers: Zacharias Wythe is Sir Stephen’s son in all but blood; he is England’s first African Sorcerer Royal, a slave bought by Sir Stephen, granted freedom and raised as a son, his magical abilities as great as those of any English thaumaturge. In an attempt to discover the cause of the decline in England’s magic, Zacharias heads to the border of Fairyland. On the way he visits Mrs Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches where he discovers Prunella Gentleman, an Asian girl who may well have found the future of English magic in a small valise left by her father before he took his own life. Heading back to London together, Zacharias is determined to change the course of English magic, despite the many attempts on his life by those jealous of his position.

Part Regency drama, part magical fantasy, Zen Cho’s debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, appears to have a little something for everyone. There is something light-hearted about the novel’s tone, despite the important themes on which the author touches, and while comparisons to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are warranted, Cho’s world feels much more substantial, much more grounded in reality than that of Susanna Clarke.

When we first meet Zacharias Wythe, he has been Sorcerer Royal for a matter of months. His predecessor is dead, though still manages to offer advice to Zacharias when required. There is, we discover, much tension in the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers for a number of reasons: Zacharias may now hold the staff of the Sorcerer Royal, but his predecessor’s familiar, Leofric disappeared at the same time that Sir Stephen Wythe died. Rumours abound that Zacharias has murdered his father, and his father’s familiar, in order to take control of the staff for himself. Of course, this is just an excuse: the Regency period is not renowned for its tolerance and open-mindedness, and Zacharias’ heritage – a slave bought and freed by Sir Stephen when he sensed the boy had great magical potential – is more than enough to condemn him in the eyes of these fine English gentlemen.

For the same reason, Zacharias now bears the burden for England’s declining magic, despite the fact that it was declining long before he took his position. On a trip to the border of Fairyland, from which the country’s magic flows, he discovers that the Fairy Court have deliberately stopped the magic and, as he investigates, discovers that the fault lies not with him, but with one of the men who wishes to take his place at the head of English thaumaturgy.

Thrown into this already explosive mix is Miss Prunella Gentleman, a young lady whom Zacharias meets on his way to Fairyland, and who convinces him that he should take her back to London with him. Prunella is in possession of a secret that could determine the future of English magic and Zacharias is now faced with fighting discrimination on two fronts: first the racism directed at both him (an African) and Prunella (a girl who is obviously of Asian origin) and second, the sexism that dictates that women cannot practice magic or become members of the Royal Society. Here Cho has a tough task: to progress the story and discuss the implications of the diversity she has introduced without resorting to lecturing or potential alienation of readers. This she manages with a great deal of style, putting the question of diversity front and centre without sacrificing anything about the world she has already built, or the fantasy she is constructing around these characters.

Cho’s use of language is an important aspect of the novel, and gives it a singular voice that sets the tone I have already mentioned. She plays with sentence structure and word usage to make the book feel “of its time”, both in terms of the narrative and of the dialogue. Despite the book’s serious edge, there is plenty of wit here, and the chemistry between the central characters – Zacharias and Prunella – is something special. The supporting cast are no less interesting or memorable, and it quickly becomes clear that not everyone is who they seem to be. Beyond England, Cho gives us a brief glimpse of Fairyland, and of the massive host of creatures that populate it. One of the most interesting characters is the old witch, Mak Genggang, who drives much of the story along, and who acts as an oracle of sorts, giving both Prunella and the reader enough background to understand where both she, and this unforgettable world, have come from.

Sorcerer to the Crown is the sort of story that captures the reader purely because we have never seen anything quite like it. It is a beautifully-written fantasy romp with an important underlying message that is still as relevant today as it was during the story’s setting. While much of the novel feels like it is building towards the much larger story promised by the prospect of a second book (and, perhaps, more), it also works as a self-contained story, and gives all of the characters the room they need to show us who they are and what they are capable of. Zen Cho’s extraordinary debut novel feels very mature, and shows a writer who is comfortable in her own ability to create whole worlds from thin air. Cho’s is a name we’ll be hearing much more of in the future; now is the time to find out what all the fuss is about.

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

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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.

HOW A GUNMAN SAYS GOODBYE by Malcolm Mackay

HOW A GUNMAN SAYS GOODBYE - Malcolm Mackay4 HOW A GUNMAN SAYS GOODBYE

Malcolm Mackay

Mantle (www.panmacmillan.com)

£14.99

Careful on these stairs. That would be some return, falling flat on his face the first day back. Not the first time he’s been to the club since he had his hip replaced. He’s been haunting the place for the last two weeks. Letting everyone see he’s back. New hip, same old Frank. Someone got the message.

Frank MacLeod is a hitman, been in the business for over forty years. No longer a young man, he is returning to work after a hip replacement. Peter Jamieson, one of Glasgow’s up-and-coming crime lords, and Frank’s employer, has a job for him, an easy job, something to ease him back into the way of things after his extended leave: kill Tommy Scott, thus putting a dampener on Shug Francis’ plans to extend his drug network into Jamieson’s territory. It should be easy; Scott’s little more than a kid, and Frank is carrying the weight of experience. When things go wrong, and Jamieson is forced to call in Calum MacLean, it looks like Frank’s days as a hitman, not to mention as a living, breathing human being, may well be coming to an end.

Malcolm Mackay stormed onto the crime fiction scene earlier this year with his astounding The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. His second novel, How A Gunman Says Goodbye, picks up a matter of weeks following the events of that first book. This time the story focuses on Frank MacLeod, an older gunman whose absence due to surgery precipitated much of the action in the first book. Frank is keen to get back to work, and to prove that he’s still capable of doing the job, despite his age and growing infirmity. It’s interesting to watch the narrowing gap between the front he projects – the elderly gent who walks to the shop and the pub on a daily basis for his loaf of bread and pint of bitter – and the man he is slowly becoming, as first he loses confidence in his own ability and then realises that the people around him – including his employer and friend, Jamieson – have lost all confidence too.

Calum MacLean, the central character of the first novel, is back, too, this time in a much more delicate role than before. First asked to carry out the unthinkable task – rescue Frank and finish the work that he was unable to do – and then the unsavoury one: keep an eye on the old man, and make sure he’s not going to do anything that will sink those around him. Calum has the added complexity of having picked up a girlfriend, who is spending too much time at his house, and asking too many questions about what he does for a living. Here, Mackay’s deft writing reveals two very different men sharing a single body: on the one hand, the cool professional killer; on the other a man so socially awkward that he has no idea how best to deal with the growing problems that this new part of his life has introduced.

Back too are the supporting cast of assorted gangsters and policemen, and the ambiguity that made Lewis Winter such a winner: there are no good guys and bad guys here, just varying shades of grey as good people do bad things, and bad people show occasional glints of humanity. Part and parcel of this, of course, is the narrator with the chummy voice who relates the events as if taking the reader into a confidence, filling in the small details that make each scene leap from the page.

There’s a knock on his door at about half two. Calum’s reading a book, Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett, if you care. He’s taking his bookmark – one he got free at Waterstones with a book about ten years ago – and he’s marking his place to the line.

And sprinkling the text with the occasional turn of phrase that causes the reader to stop, re-read, and admire the beauty:

People like to get their revenge quickly, no matter what the common serving suggestion may be.

It’s difficult to imagine reading How A Gunman Says Goodbye without having first read The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, despite the fact that both books feature closed-ended plotlines and should work quite easily as standalone narratives. There’s just so much background here that makes Gunman feel like the second part of a much larger book, rather than the second book in a trilogy. It’s at least as good as its predecessor, but you’ll lose a lot if you don’t read them in order. That said, Gunman does a lot to advance the larger story arc, setting the scene for the final volume due early next year: we see Jamieson’s manoeuvres as he prepares to take the next step up the ladder, and we watch as Detective Fisher, with all the pace and tenacity of Lieutenant Columbo, moves dangerously closer to the truth that puts Calum MacLean right in the centre of his sights.

With How A Gunman Says Goodbye Malcolm Mackay shows that he is more than a one-hit wonder. Filled with a cast of unforgettable characters, and with a plot that will keep the reader hooked from the first page to the last, this is the continuation of Mackay’s debut novel that we might only ever have hoped to see. There are plenty of surprises here, too: it’s a tale of friendship and loyalty, and how they can sometimes be mutually exclusive. And in its many twists and turns we get a glimpse into a world completely different from our own. By turns dark and funny, it’s a beautifully-written look at the criminal underworld of modern-day Glasgow. This – and its predecessor – is a book not to be missed.

REVIVER by Seth Patrick

REVIVER - Seth Patrick REVIVER

Seth Patrick (sethpatrickauthor.blogspot.co.uk)

Macmillan (www.panmacmillan.com)

£12.99

"Sometimes Jonah Miller hated talking to the dead."

Jonah Miller is a reviver. As part of the Forensic Revival Service, his job is to bring the recent dead back to life – briefly – to obtain a witness statement from them concerning the circumstances of their death. When one of his subjects grows frightened of something that seems to be stalking her, and that thing then talks to Jonah, he finds himself on administrative leave due to stress-induced hallucinations. After further revivals, Jonah finds himself accessing memories that are not his own, and quickly learns that he is not the first reviver to have suffered these symptoms. As he digs, he discovers that someone – most likely someone with a lot of financial backing – is using revival for their own sinister ends, leaving it up to him – and the dwindling group of people that still trust in his sanity – to stop them before what they’re doing can have dire consequences for humankind.

From the opening pages – wherein we find ourselves witnessing our very first revival – it’s clear that we’re in the hands of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing. Before the opening chapter is done, you’ll be in awe at the ease with which Seth Patrick has scared the bejeezus out of you. Reviver is set in a world not unlike our own. The discovery of people with the ability to raise the dead – however briefly – is a relatively recent one, and Patrick incorporates a brief history into the story, answering moral and legal questions as he goes. Nowadays, forensic revival is a respected tool of the legal process, and first-person witness statements are accepted as evidence in court. In practical terms, this has made killers slightly more inventive and a lot more violent about how they kill people: fire pretty much destroys the chances of reviving someone, while beheading the victim is the only sure-fire way of ensuring that they won’t come back.

Along with the history, Patrick also has a detailed set of rules that govern when and how revivers work, whether they work in the private sector (moderating farewells between deceased and family) or for the FRS: resting periods between revivals, number of tries before the attempt is abandoned, etc. Fortunately, the author has managed to deftly thread these details through the story, so there’s never a point where everything slows down for a few pages of exposition, though, somehow, the reader comes away with a working, if necessarily incomplete, understanding of the science.

The story revolves around Jonah Miller, a young member of the FRS, and the journalist Daniel Harker, the man who first broke news of revival to the world. When Harker is killed, Miller is called in to assist in his revival, and discovers information that, when coupled with his previous experience, leads him to believe that the foundations on which his life are built may not be quite as stable as he once believed. Together with Harker’s daughter and his friend, FRS technician Never Geary, Jonah sets out to discover what – or who – is behind these strange new experiences. The strength of Reviver lies in how well-constructed the characters are, especially the central pair of Miller and Geary, and how much we, the reader, invest in them as we progress through the book.

As good-versus-evil plotlines go, Reviver‘s is hardly the most original, and there is a short period, as Jonah begins to uncover exactly what’s going on, when the more jaded reader (that’s me!) will wonder if there’s much point in carrying on. But it’s the concept of revival itself that provides the much-needed twist on an old horror trope, and makes this a standout novel in a year already packed with releases from established genre writers. The hook comes early in the story as we watch the end of Jonah’s first revival. In a single line, Patrick manages to turn the reader’s blood to ice and prove that what’s to come is more than just a slightly odd episode of CSI.

Macmillan, the book’s publisher, are clearly investing much in this promising young writer. As if the cover isn’t beautiful enough, it’s been given the interactive treatment, and smartphone or tablet users with the Blippar app will be able to watch the young lady come to life in a short but very disturbing video that gives a taste of what to expect within. Their promotional material does do the book a disservice, though, calling it "[o]ne of the finest urban noir horror debuts of 2013". Given the size of the field, that’s somewhere akin to the less-than-glowing "the best novel called Reviver to be published this year". I’m going to go one better and call it one of the finest debuts of 2013, in any genre. Expect to see this on my top ten of the year in December and, I suspect, on many other "best of the year" lists.

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 2012 Round-Up

It’s that time of the year again when the “best of the year” lists start to appear. Not wanting to be left out, and because I had some fun with it last year, I’ve decided to do another round-up, and remind everyone what my top ten (or so) books of 2012 are.

THE ROUND-UP

By the end of this reading year (Christmas Eve, for me), I will have read 63 books, one more than last year’s total and a personal best for me. While crime fiction still accounts for a large fraction of what I read this year (26 of the 63 books), my reading focus has shifted slightly over the course of the year. This is mainly due to very kind publicists sending review copies of books that I might not otherwise have picked up. There is still a theme running through much of my reading, but Reader Dad is now much less about “Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction” and more about the darkness that lies deep within the human soul. The list contains its fair share of horror and holocaust fiction and a handful of deeply disturbing character studies that appeal to the noir-lover that hides inside me.

Of the 63 books, a massive 32 are by authors that are new to me, including six debut authors and eight foreign authors whose work was published in English for the first time this year. The rest are a selection favourites both old (Stephen King, Neal Stephenson) and relatively new (Colin Cotterill, Justin Cronin). 2012 also saw some experimentation with the blog, moving away from posting only book reviews, to including author interviews, guest posts and even one book-inspired travelogue. As the year draws to a close and I look back at what I have achieved, I find that I’m happy with the format, and hope to include more interviews and guest posts as we move into 2013 and beyond. I am, of course, always happy to hear from my readers, if you have any suggestions or comments.

Without further ado, then, it’s time to look at my favourite books of the year. As with last year, there is only one criteria: for the book to be on the list, its first official publication date must have been between 1 January  and 31 December 2011. As I mentioned, it’s been a bumper year, so whittling the list down to ten was nigh on impossible, so you’ll see an extra couple slipping in. The books are listed in the order they were read, with the exception of my stand-out, which I’ll list at the end. Links take you to the original review, where it exists.

MATT’S TOP 10 OF 2012

The-Child-Who - Lelic

THE CHILD WHO by Simon Lelic (Mantle)

I have said it before, but I’ll say it again: Simon Lelic is a man to watch, a must-read author, the real deal. The Child Who is a powerful and heart-wrenching thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and drag you, emotionally, into the thick of the plot. This is, without doubt, Lelic’s finest work to date. It is a showcase for a man who is the master of his art, a skilful plotter, and a writer who proves that, when it comes to language, spare can be beautiful. A stunning novel from one of the finest writers working today. Not to be missed.

   
EASY MONEY - Jens Lapidus

EASY MONEY by Jens Lapidus [tr: Astri von Arbin Ahlander] (Macmillan)

Easy Money is an assured and brilliant debut – I’ll admit I was surprised that it was, indeed, Lapidus’ first novel, and not just the first to appear in English translation, as sometimes happens. It’s not difficult to see why it’s the fastest-selling Swedish crime novel in a decade, and why it’s already a very successful film (one, it saddens me to say, that has already been lined up for an American remake). It ticks all the boxes I look for in a good crime thriller: action-packed, gritty, dark, violent, funny and, above all, realistic. It introduces three unforgettable characters who you will love and hate in equal measure as the story progresses. The good news is that it’s also the first book in a trilogy (books two and three of which have already been published in Sweden, so with luck we won’t have to wait too long to get our hands on them). It’s worth mentioning again that credit is due to the translator – this is her first novel translation, which is something of a feat – who has taken a very difficult style and made it work beautifully. If you’re a fan of James Ellroy or Don Winslow, you can’t miss this. Jens Lapidus is definitely one to watch.

   
ANGELMAKER - Nick Harkaway

ANGELMAKER by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann)

Angelmaker is that rare beast: the sophomore novel that lives up to – if not surpasses – the promise of the author’s first. It’s a wonderfully-written book – Harkaway has a knack with the language that makes this huge novel very easy to read and enjoy. It has more than its fair share of dark and shocking scenes and more than a handful of genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and even one or two places where both things are true at the same time. It’s clear to see the novel’s influences, but this is something new, something different and completely unexpected. It’s goes in a much different direction than The Gone-Away World (although there are connections enough for the sharp-eyed reader), which might disappoint a small contingent looking for more of the same, but it does achieve a similar end: it’s a beautiful showcase for a talented writer, a unique voice and inventive mind who can, it seems, turn his hand to anything.

   
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TRIESTE by Daša Drndić [tr: Ellen Elias-Bursac] (Maclehose Press)

This is a difficult book to read, as horror builds upon horror until the reader feels numb, but it is an important novel, and one that deserves a wide readership. In the end, Trieste is more documentary than fiction. It’s a beautifully-written work (despite the often-horrific subject matter) and appears in a wonderful translation from the ever-reliable Maclehose Press. I certainly won’t claim to have enjoyed the experience, but it’s one I’m glad I had, and one that will stay with me for a long time. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

   
wind-through-the-keyhole-stephen-king

THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE by Stephen King (Hodder)

For the aficionado […] The Wind through the Keyhole has everything that we’ve come to expect from the series. Here are our friends in the middle of their journey and while the starkblast poses no threat (we know they all live through it), King still manages to notch up the suspense in the telling. Here is the broken-down world that these people inhabit, the world that is almost, but not quite, like some future version of our own. And here, most importantly, is our old adversary, the man in black, the Walkin’ Dude, Randall Flagg, doing what he loves and what, if we’re totally honest with ourselves, what we love to see him do. The subhead of this book fills me with a sense of expectant glee: not Dark Tower 4.5, as was originally mooted, but A Dark Tower Novel. This is one Constant Reader that lives in the hope that Roland and his ka-tet still have more to say, especially if what they have to say is as worthwhile as what’s within the covers of The Wind through the Keyhole. There is no better master of his craft than Stephen King, and I’m finding it difficult to believe that I’ll see a better book than this before year’s end.

   
a-cold-season1

A COLD SEASON by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)

Littlewood’s first novel is an assured and finely-crafted piece of work, probably the best horror debut since Joe Hill’s 2007 novel,Heart-Shaped Box. It brings the promised scares without resort to nasty tricks or gore, and proves that it is still possible to write engaging, entertaining horror fiction without zombies or vampires. Earlier I wondered how you measure the success of a good horror novel. I’m not ashamed to admit that our house has been lit up like a Christmas tree for most of the past week; it’s a rare novel these days that can bring the creep factor to a hardened horror fan like me, but this succeeds admirably where so many others have failed. If you are in any way a fan of horror fiction, and have not yet done so, you need to read A Cold Season. Just make sure you know where the light switches are.

   
Railsea UK

RAILSEA by China Miéville (Macmillan)

Wildly imaginative and totally unique, Railsea is a beautifully-written vision of a world that could only have sprung from the mind of China Miéville. Peopled by a cast of colourful individuals, it’s a stunning rework of a classic of literature, and a look at what happens when we travel outside the bubble that is the world we know. Railsea is Miéville on top form, and shows a talented artist doing what he does best, and what he evidently loves doing. The invented words and general writing style can sometimes make Miéville a tough author to approach for the first time. The payoff here is more than worth the effort, and Railsea is the perfect introduction to one of the most original writers in any genre.

   
TURBULENCE - Samit Basu

TURBULENCE by Samit Basu (Titan Books)

Credited as the creator of Indian English fantasy, Samit Basu arrives in the UK as an accomplished, some might say veteran, writer –Turbulence is his fifth novel, making him the best fantasy writer you’ve never heard of. That’s a state of affairs that you should rectify with all possible haste. Turbulence is a superhero novel like none you’ve seen before. A polished storyline, engaging characters and razor sharp wit combine to make this a must-read for everyone that has ever enjoyed a comic. It’s funny and action-packed, yes, but it’s also extremely intelligent and thought-provoking. It’s a perfect introduction to an excellent writer, and we can only hope that his back catalogue is made available in the UK in short order. It’s also an excellent start to a series that looks set to redefine the superhero genre for the twenty-first century. Kudos to Titan Books to bringing this excellent author, and this exciting series, to a much wider audience.

   
ALIF THE UNSEEN - G Willow Wilson

ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson (Corvus Books)

G. Willow Wilson has produced an exceptional debut novel that seamlessly melds technology and mythology to astounding effect. A must read for fans of Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman, Alif the Unseen introduces us to a brilliant new author with talent to burn. With elements as diverse as computing, djinn, love, adventure and an examination of what makes us who we are, there is something here for everyone. The Diamond Age for the twenty-first century, Alif the Unseen establishes Wilson as one of the finest new writers to emerge this year. I, for one, can’t wait to see where she goes next.

   
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LET THE OLD DREAMS DIE AND OTHER STORIES by John Ajvide Lindqvist [tr: Marlaine Delargy] (Quercus)

Let The Old Dreams Die proves that John Ajvide Lindqvist is as comfortable and as adept in the short form as the long. A showcase of a writer at the top of his game, it stands alongside Skeleton Crew, 20th Century Ghosts and The Panic Hand as an example of some of the finest short horror fiction you’ll find today. The two afterwords are also worth reading; self-deprecating and very funny, they show a writer who loves what he does and give some insight into his work. With six years since the original publication in Sweden of Paper Walls, we can but hope that it won’t be long before Lindqvist has enough stories to fill a second volume.

   
THE TWELVE - Justin Cronin

THE TWELVE by Justin Cronin (Orion Books)

Cronin slips easily back into the world he created two years ago in The Passage. The Twelve is a much different beast, as the central parts of epic trilogies tend to be. Starting slow, picking up the threads left loose at the end of the first book, Cronin builds slowly towards a false climax, tying up enough loose ends to leave the reader satisfied, while leaving enough to make us want to come back for more. The Twelve is a worthy successor to The Passage, and is well worth the two-year wait we have had to endure to have it in our hands. Cronin’s plotting is as tight as ever, his writing beautiful, flowing – this seven-hundred page novel is gone in the blink of an eye, a testament to how well written it is. Abrupt ending aside, there is much to love about The Twelve, not least the fact that we get to visit once more with old friends. Perfect autumn reading for fans of The Passage, it should also give new readers an excuse to dip their toes in the water. With luck, we won’t have to wait much longer than another two years to find out how this wonderful story plays out.

AND THE STAND-OUT

One book stood head-and-shoulders above the rest for me this year, so I felt it deserved its own section:

HHhH

HHHH by Laurent Binet [tr: Sam Taylor] (Harvill Secker)

HHhH is an extraordinary piece of work, a book that sets out to be a historical document and ends up as something completelyother. At times tense and thrilling, at others touching and intimate, the author manages to endow this story and these characters with a three-dimensionality that would otherwise be lacking in a straightforward reportage of the events. We are also offered a unique insight into the mind-set of the author, whose sole task should be to relate the events as they happened, but who is so invested in the story that impartiality is impossible. At once accessible history and fast-paced thriller, HHhH is, to overuse a cliché, like no book you’ve read before. Three short weeks after calling Stephen King’s The Wind through the Keyhole the best book you’re likely to see this year, I am forced to eat my words, and make the same ostentatious claim about Laurent Binet’s HHhH. It’s an awe-inspiring debut, from a writer of enormous talent and immense potential. We can only hope that the story of Heydrich, Gabčík and Kubiš is not his only obsession, and that we will hear from him again soon.

AND 2012’S MOST DISAPPOINTING

2012 brought with it the realisation that I’m not getting any younger. With a full-time job and a three-year-old child, my reading time is limited. I don’t have to finish every book that I start, wasting countless hours or days trudging through a book I’m not enjoying because I feel I need to finish it. As a result I have abandoned more books in the past twelve months than in the previous twelve years combined. My most notable disappointment for the year, of all the books I finished, is listed below. Despite my less-than-glowing review, I’m excited by the prospect of James’ second novel, The Explorer, which is due to hit shelves in January.

THE TESTIMONY - James Smythe

THE TESTIMONY by James Smythe (Blue Door Books)

The Testimony has, at its core, a wonderful idea, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. James Smythe’s vision of a world on the brink is all the more frightening because of its plausibility and we get all-too-brief glimpses of what he is capable of as a writer throughout, particularly in the middle section of the novel. There are too many problems, and the book never quite achieves the level it should. A disappointment, but not a complete write-off: The Testimony fails to live up to this reader’s expectations, but it has served to put a potentially wonderful writer on my radar.

COMING SOON…

Expect more reviews and interviews in the coming months. I have already started into the pile of 2013 books that I’ve been collecting for the past few months, and there are some really exciting titles there. 2013 brings with it the prospect of new novels by Warren Ellis and Joe Hill, and two new works from Stephen King, including a sequel to one of his most enduring novels. It’s going to be a busy year, and I expect to have even more trouble selecting a Top Ten than I did this year.

All that remains is for me to thank the publishers and publicists who continue to send me books in return for an honest review and who, in doing so, ensure that I’m continually reading outside my comfort zone. I’d like to thank the authors who have taken the time to answer questions or provide guest posts. And, most importantly, thanks to my readers and visitors, without whom I would just be talking to myself. I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and a safe and prosperous 2013.

RAILSEA by China Miéville

Railsea UK RAILSEA

China Miéville (chinamieville.net)

Macmillan (panmacmillan.com)

£17.99

China Miéville’s latest novel, Railsea, takes us to a strange new world, and introduces us to Sham ap Soorap, a young boy working as an apprentice doctor aboard a moletrain. In the course of a moldywarpe hunt, the crew come across a wrecked train, and Sham discovers a camera’s memory card. On it, pictures that shock him to his core, and lead him on a mission to find two children whose parents have evidently died in search of the impossible. But there are more people interested in these two children, and in the contents of this memory card, than just Sham, and before long he finds himself involved with pirates, the military and salvage operators all looking for one thing: fortune.

Over the past number of years, Miéville has become something of a poster boy for science fiction, and consistently produces some of the finest work in the genre. His latest is a wonderful showcase for an imagination that knows no bounds and has few equals. Even for someone who has not read the original tale (yet another shameful Reader Dad confession), it’s immediately obvious where part of the inspiration for Railsea comes from: it’s a reworking of Melville’s Moby Dick, set on a world where oceans are replaced by vast swathes of train tracks, the ships we expect are replaced by trains of various descriptions – molers, salvors, ferronaval vessels bristling with weaponry and shrouded in armour, even pirates – and the great whale hunted by Ahab and his crew (here played by the one-armed Captain Naphi and the crew of the Medes) replaced by a giant mole.

It sounds faintly ridiculous, but it works; this is pure Miéville, master world-builder and expert storyteller. It doesn’t take long for the reader to become immersed in this strange world and to understand exactly how everything works. This is most definitely science fiction, but it has a very old fashioned feel – the technology is, for the most part, old and unreliable, the trains mostly ramshackle, cobbled together, and even the text feels oddly antiquated, due to the replacement of the word “and” throughout with the symbol “&”, a replacement that does have some significance, as explained later in the book. As we’ve come to expect from Miéville, the humans in this story share space with fantastical creatures, and the text is littered with neologisms and inventions designed to do little more than highlight the alien-ness of this world.

The book is promoted as an adventure for all ages, and in some outlets is being pushed purely as young adult fiction, similar to his earlier Un Lun Dun. It’s difficult to see how this came about. Yes, the central character (three of the central characters, in fact) is in his teens, but beyond that, this is a complex novel with ideas and concepts above and beyond what one might normally expect to find in young adult fiction, and which may leave younger readers more than a little baffled (the aforementioned essay on the ampersand is a case in point). It’s also likely to have an impact on the number of older readers who actually pick this up; for me, it’s as complex (some might say convoluted) as The City & The City and as beautifully-wrought as Perdido Street Station; it deserves not to be dismissed as a lesser work aimed at a much younger audience (it’s not).

Miéville’s strength is, without doubt, his ability to spin worlds out of thin air, but he also has a talent for characterisation. This is an odd bunch, from the soft-hearted, adventure-seeking Sham, to the damaged and obsessed Captain Naphi. Naphi and her fellow captains are an interesting bunch, the vast majority of them chasing a specific creature, each creature representing a philosophy, and providing a source of tales for the captains to tell each other, as much as anything else.

“I come for all the good philosophies,” she said. “Captain Genn’s Ferret of Unrequitedness; Zhorbal & the Too-Much-Knowledge Mole Rats; & Naphi. Of course. Naphi & Mocker-Jack, Mole of Many Meanings.”

“What’s her philosophy, then?” Sham said.

“Ain’t you listening? Mocker-Jack means everything.”

Wildly imaginative and totally unique, Railsea is a beautifully-written vision of a world that could only have sprung from the mind of China Miéville. Peopled by a cast of colourful individuals, it’s a stunning rework of a classic of literature, and a look at what happens when we travel outside the bubble that is the world we know. Railsea is Miéville on top form, and shows a talented artist doing what he does best, and what he evidently loves doing. The invented words and general writing style can sometimes make Miéville a tough author to approach for the first time. The payoff here is more than worth the effort, and Railsea is the perfect introduction to one of the most original writers in any genre.

THE SEA ON FIRE by Howard Cunnell

the-sea-on-fire-978144720240001 THE SEA ON FIRE

Howard Cunnell

Picador (www.picador.com)

£12.99

Kim is a man in his mid-thirties who has spent the vast majority of the latter half of his life travelling the world and diving some of its most beautiful spots. Nowadays he is living in Brixton with his wife and three daughters, the call of the sea a constant background noise. When his friend and long-time diving partner Garland Rain turns up and offers him a three-week job as a dive guide in the Red Sea, Kim jumps at the chance and, despite his wife’s disapproval, heads to Egypt and the freedom of the sea. Their boat, the Shang-Tu, belongs to a man named Teddy King, a small-time crook who thrives on cruelty, violence and drugs. It doesn’t take long for the party to start, and Kim quickly finds himself drawn in, much to the disgust of his friend. As the trip progresses, it soon becomes clear that the people on the boat have no intention of following rules and procedures, so it’s no great surprise when one of the divers disappears.

Told from the first-person perspective of Kim, The Sea on Fire starts slow and, with only a handful of exceptions, remains slow throughout. For perhaps the first third of the novel, it’s difficult to treat these characters as fictional, as Cunnell introduces us to Kim and Garland and the lifestyle they have chosen for themselves. For this first section, it’s a book about diving written by a man with a deep love of the subject and it reads like an autobiographical account of a young man in love with life, with the sea and with the art and science of diving. The reader only really becomes aware that this is a piece of fiction when the boat journey starts and partying commences. From that point onwards it is clear to everyone, except our narrator, that things can only go horribly wrong, and from around the halfway mark, The Sea on Fire is as suspenseful as any thriller, despite the slow pace.

For the most part, the novel is an examination of the end of freedom that usually comes with the responsibility of parenthood, the forced settling down and, for most, the end of many things young people take for granted – the freedom to travel, to have dangerous hobbies, to not need to work simply to pay bills. It’s clear from the outset that Kim feels this deeply, and his life in Brixton with a wife and three children leaves him feeling claustrophobic, pining for the open sea where he feels he belongs, and the sense of freedom he feels while submerged in the water. It’s no real surprise, then, that he falls for the party atmosphere on the boat, the abundance of alcohol and drugs, and the presence of the young and willing woman with whom he spends his nights; it’s a return to his natural state, to the person he believes he has never quite stopped being. There are, of course, consequences – the disappearing diver and the stain it is likely to leave on his and his partner’s reputations is the least of these; there are greater consequences on his return to England, and his internal struggle makes this a compelling read. At first, Kim seems a strange character to tell the story, but he has, without doubt, the most interesting story to tell, and the only story likely to appeal to non-divers.

Cunnell has managed to squeeze plenty into a book barely three-hundred pages in length: Kim’s internal struggle and his rapid descent into chaos; the disappearance of the diver and the aftermath which, despite my original statement that The Sea on Fire is a slow book, still manages to pack a considerable punch and forms the central plot around which the rest of the novel is built; there is also a message about the conservation of the world’s reefs, the damage that is done every day by careless divers and the consequences this will have for the reefs, the wildlife that relies on them, right up the food chain to the people causing the damage in the first place. It’s a unique and very interesting novel (and I should probably mention the fact that I am coming at this as someone who has had no prior interest in diving) and it is clear that, in some ways, parts of it are autobiographical, in that Kim and the the author share the same passion for the sea and the ecosystem it supports.

The Sea on Fire is a bit of a departure from my normal reading preferences. It’s a slow novel that builds towards a suspenseful climax. It is probably best described as a “literary thriller”, but that does serious injustice to the vast bulk of the book, which is a story about divers and their craft. Cunnell manages to keep it interesting throughout and, despite the slow pace of the story, it is a quick and entertaining read, even with the sometimes over-technical discussions. Cunnell has done an excellent job of bringing his characters and the Red Sea to life and leaving the reader with an almost cinematic view of this beautiful part of the world. It’s a surprising little gem, and won’t disappoint.

EASY MONEY by Jens Lapidus

EASY MONEY - Jens Lapidus EASY MONEY

Jens Lapidus

Translated by Astri von Arbin Ahlander

Macmillan (www.panmacmillan.com)

£12.99

Released: 2nd February 2012

When Jens Lapidus’ debut novel, Easy Money, landed on my desk, it came bearing a quote that is almost inevitable these days on the English translations of Swedish novels – the quote that compares this writer to Stieg Larsson. What caught my eye about this quote, though, is the fact that it came from none other than the Demon dog of American crime fiction, and one of my personal favourites, James Ellroy.

Easy Money – originally published in Sweden in 2006 – takes an in-depth look at Stockholm’s underworld through the eyes of three men for whom that shady empire is home. Jorge is Chilean, and is doing time for possession of cocaine with intent to sell. When Jorge pulls off the impossible – hops over the twenty-three-foot wall that surrounds Österåker prison – he disappears into a world where his knowledge of the cocaine business can make him king. He just has to stay free, and stay alive, for long enough to put that knowledge to good use.

JW is a wannabe – a country boy living it large in the big city, hiding his background in order to fit in with the rich set who sleep all day and party all night in Stockholm’s most fashionable area. He drives a gypsy cab on the nights he isnt partying to afford the parties and soon graduates to dealing cocaine when his boss sees potential in him. JW has ulterior motives for being in the city – several years earlier, his older sister followed the same course and disappeared without a trace. JW hopes to achieve what the police could not, and find what happened to her.

Mrado is a member of the Yugo Mafia. He’s a big man who lives on a diet of protein bars and steroids. He’s a racketeer, running a large chunk of the city’s coat-check business. Mrado, a Serbian who fought at Srebrenica, fears no man, but he has a weak spot – a daughter that he sees one day every other week, and even that under protest by his ex-wife. As the lives of these three men converge, moving towards the largest cocaine shipment Stockholm has ever seen, violence erupts, and they find that they may have more in common with each other than it would seem at first glance.

Lapidus presents us with a realistic vision of what Stockholm’s underworld might look like – the various factions battling for a piece of this or that business in a city barely big enough to hold them all. He does this through alternating chapters told from the point of view of each of the three protagonists. It’s a complex world, and the interrelationships between these men – never fully revealed to them, but revealed piecemeal to the reader – is equally complex, and Lapidus uses small, exciting chunks to build a story that is, for the reader at least, much more than the sum of its parts. The comparisons with Larsson are undeniable and, in my opinion, well-founded: this is a side of Sweden that most Swedes probably don’t know exists, a side that the Swedish tourist authorities would much rather wasn’t advertised; it portrays Stockholm as a dark and violent city peopled by rich brats, and gangsters and wannabes. Like the journalist Larsson, Lapidus is well-placed to provide a realistic look at this world– he’s a criminal defence lawyer who, according to his bio, represents some of the most notorious criminals in Sweden.

The novel reads like a tribute to Ellroy. The subject bears a close resemblance to some of the myriad plots that drive his Underworld USA trilogy, but most striking is Lapidus’ telegraphic, rhythmic writing style. The short, sharp prose that defines most of Ellroy’s work is beautifully reproduced here, despite the translation from Swedish to English.

Jorge knew how it was: Friends on the inside are not like friends on the outside. Other rules apply. Power hierarchies are clearer. Time inside counts. Number of times inside counts. Smokes count; roaches count more. Favors grant relationships. Your crime counts: rapists and pedophiles worth zero. Junkies and alkies way down. Assault and theft higher. Armed robbery and drug kingpins on top. Most of all: Your membership counts. Rolando, a friend according to the rules on the outside. According to the principles of the slammer: Playa batted in the major leagues, Jorge in the minor.

It’s impressive to read, and respect to both author and translator for pulling it off. The fashion-obsessed JW, his chapters littered with brand names, and club names, comes across as a cut-price Patrick Bateman: all of the ego, and none of the psychopathic tendencies. It’s difficult to know, though, if this mimicry of Bret Easton Ellis’ most enduring creation is deliberate or not.

Lapidus infuses the novel with a deep sense of place, and the story is littered with street names and place names. There’s an implicit trust that the author won’t mess around too much with the city’s geography, but it serves to ground the action in real places that can be found on a map, and to make the reader feel like they know at least a small part of the city. If you’re like me, it also serves as a tourist guide and makes the reader long to (re)visit.

Easy Money is an assured and brilliant debut – I’ll admit I was surprised that it was, indeed, Lapidus’ first novel, and not just the first to appear in English translation, as sometimes happens. It’s not difficult to see why it’s the fastest-selling Swedish crime novel in a decade, and why it’s already a very successful film (one, it saddens me to say, that has already been lined up for an American remake). It ticks all the boxes I look for in a good crime thriller: action-packed, gritty, dark, violent, funny and, above all, realistic. It introduces three unforgettable characters who you will love and hate in equal measure as the story progresses. The good news is that it’s also the first book in a trilogy (books two and three of which have already been published in Sweden, so with luck we won’t have to wait too long to get our hands on them). It’s worth mentioning again that credit is due to the translator – this is her first novel translation, which is something of a feat – who has taken a very difficult style and made it work beautifully. If you’re a fan of James Ellroy or Don Winslow, you can’t miss this. Jens Lapidus is definitely one to watch.

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