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THE DARKEST HEART by Dan Smith

the-darkest-heart-final-cover THE DARKEST HEART

Dan Smith (www.dansmithsbooks.com)

Orion Books (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

Having fled the slums of Rio de Janeiro as a much younger man, Zico now lives in a small town on the banks of Brazil’s Araguaia River. Here, Zico finds friendship and love and decides that Piratinga is the perfect place to settle down. Zico is a killer for hire, and his employer has one final job for him before he can retire to the life he so desires, one more kill. But this is a kill that weighs on Zico’s conscience, and makes him question his own nature. As we follow Zico down the river, through the heart of Brazil, we come to learn just who this young man is and who he has been. Facing dangers both natural and man-made, Zico’s last job may also result in his own death, and those of the people he loves the most.

There were times I felt I would always be death’s passenger.

From the moment we meet Zico, who narrates this dark and atmospheric story, it is clear that he is a man with troubles. A shadow follows him, the result of years as a killer, and it is one that he finds difficult to shake off. The promise of unheard-of sums of money for this one last job – money that will allow him to retire and forget about this dark present, and the even darker past – are enough to convince him to accompany his friend on his boat along the Rio das Mortes – the aptly-named River of Deaths – to the mines at Mina dos Santos.

The addition of two unexpected passengers – Zico’s girlfriend Daniella and the mysterious Leonardo, who is funding the trip to the mines – adds extra layers of complexity to this simple-seeming story, and allows for the vast majority of the story’s action to take place on board the Deus e o Diabo as they travel through the Brazilian forests. Zico and Leonardo clash immediately, two strong egos battling for control of this small piece of the world that they are forced to share for several days. There are many similarities between the two men, but Zico finds himself determined to prove that they are completely different, and this clash between the two men, in part, drives Zico’s quest for salvation, of which the trip becomes more and more a symbol as the story progresses.

One of the most important aspects of The Darkest Heart is the atmosphere that Dan Smith conjures through Zico’s voice. This is a story that could only take place in this remote and deadly location. The heat is palpable, the encroaching forest and the unknowns that lurk within as threatening to the reader as they are to the characters on the boat. Smith’s use of language is a wonder to behold: there are similarities to the simplicity and beauty of the writing of Gabriel García Márquez, and more obviously to the similar trip described in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But Smith builds upon these solid foundations to create something that is undeniably original, a story that grips the reader from the first word to the last, and takes us through a rollercoaster of emotions as it carries us along the river.

The nature of the story means that, for the most part, the story revolves around the four central characters – Zico, Daniella, Leonardo and Raul, the old man who owns the boat. There are, of course, others who play much smaller roles, including the foreign nun that Zico has been hired to kill. Each of the characters comes to the story fully-formed and with more than the physical baggage that they carry onto the boat at the start of the journey. Despite the fact that we only get to see them through Zico’s eyes, he is an honest enough narrator that we are allowed to form our own opinions of who they are.

There are moments of pure adrenalin, unexpected interludes that will have the reader on the edge of their seat, breaking a sweat: an escape from piranha-infested water is one such moment, while the discovery of a dead body on the river bank, and the deserted village from which she escaped – however briefly – is perfectly-judged to leave the reader feeling cold and unsafe, even in the midst of the stifling heat that is a constant companion on the trip.

Beautiful and lyrical with a dark undercurrent of violence and terror, Dan Smith’s latest novel, The Darkest Heart, is a journey through the heart of Brazil in the company of a man of who is a self-professed killer. Perfectly paced and designed in a way that will leave the reader unsure, until the very last moment, as to the outcome of Zico’s trip, its strength lies in the characterisations and the evocation of this tropical and largely unknown part of the world. The Darkest Heart is my first experience with Dan Smith’s work; I’m confident that it won’t be my last, and would recommend the book without reservation.

#CarrieAt40: Bringing the Weird Home by MICHAEL MARSHALL SMITH

We Are Here - MMS MICHAEL MARSHALL SMITH

On the web: www.michaelmarshallsmith.com

On Twitter: @ememess

There’s no doubt that horror fiction — and commercial fiction in general — would have been very different without the novel Carrie. Of course there were writers who’d blazed the trail — Richard Matheson and Ira Levin are two obvious examples — but in terms of bringing the weird home to where real people live, into recognisable places and spaces, King has been a game-changer with no equal. Carrie managed a double cultural whammy, too, as Brian de Palma’s engagingly flashy movie version was a striking encapsulation of the times, and the iconic image of the ethereal Sissy Spacek drenched in blood is hard to forget.

Carrie was actually nothing like the first King I read (I joined at The Talisman, and then worked back) but without its runaway success it’s unlikely he’d have written those later works — and without them, I very likely wouldn’t be a writer. One of the truly scary things about life is how your own can be wholly turned around by things outside your control…

Michael Marshall Smith is a novelist and screenwriter, and the only writer ever to win the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story four times. His novel The Intruders is currently in production as a TV series with BBC America, starring John Simm and Mira Sorvino. He lives in Santa Cruz, California, with his wife and son.

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.

The 2011 Round-Up

As the end of the year approaches, I have decided to break from the straightforward review posts that have populated Reader Dad to date, to do a brief round-up of the year’s reading, including my Top 10 of 2011 and my Most Disappointing of 2011.

THE ROUND-UP

If you have checked out my newly-added Reading List section, you will know that I have been recording everything I’ve read since 2003. My reading year runs from Christmas Day to Christmas Eve, because I like to have the decks cleared in time to enjoy the influx of new books that Christmas typically brings for the avid reader. By the end of this reading year, I will have read 62 books, which is my best year “since records began” (my current read, Stephen King’s 11.22.63 is likely to take me the rest of the week to complete). Of those, eight are 2011 debut novels for the authors in question. A further two are the first novels by established foreign authors to be translated into English. Twenty-two others are the first books I have read by their respective authors, and the rest are a mixture of favourites both old and new.

The focus of my reading this year has been on crime fiction, with over half of the books read falling into that genre, or one of its many sub-genres (including those books I have been categorising as “thrillers” for want of a better description). Holocaust/war fiction, science fiction, horror and westerns have all featured, and the list even includes a non-fiction title.

There is only one criteria for the lists below: for the book to be on the list, its first official publication date must have been between 1 January and 31 December 2011. For this reason, a couple of my favourite books of the year haven’t made it on to the list, but deserve honourable mentions nonetheless. Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars is a collection of four beautiful novellas to rival his earlier Different Seasons, which gave us “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” (source of Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption), “Apt Pupil” (and the film of the same name) and “The Body” (upon which Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me is based). Thaisa Frank’s beautiful Heidegger’s Glasses tells the tale of an underground compound filled with scribes whose sole purpose is to respond to letters addressed to people who have been killed in the Third Reich’s concentration camps. Using original letters, and with a cast of sympathetic characters, it’s an excellent and extremely touching novel. Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key, which was reissued by Hesperus late in 2010 is a must-read for anyone that enjoys to read. Simon Lelic’s third novel, The Child Who, won’t be published until early January, so you can expect to see it on my 2012 list.

The following lists are in reading order, as I can’t imagine how I would be able to rate them against each other. And, chances are, an extra one or two have snuck in. Hyperlinks will take you directly to my review (where it exists).

MATT’S TOP 10 OF 2011

SANCTUS-Simon ToyneSANCTUS by Simon Toyne (HarperCollins)

Once you start, you’ll just have to keep going until you reach the end, and this book gave me more late nights than I care to remember, always with the mantra “just one more chapter” on my lips.

A stunning debut, a dark and terrifying crime/horror/dark fantasy novel that will appeal to a broad spectrum of readers, and a book that cements Simon Toyne firmly in my own personal must-read list. On April 14th, make sure you get your hands on a copy; you won’t regret it.

 

 

 

 

 

untitledTHE DEMI-MONDE: WINTER by Rod Rees (Quercus)

The Demi-Monde is a well thought-out and fully realised steampunk universe, with echoes of Neal Stephenson’s THE DIAMOND AGE and Tad Williams’ OTHERLAND series. The novel, like most of Stephenson’s work, is huge in scope and contains a vast cast of characters, many of whom are plucked directly from the history books.

If author and publisher can maintain this standard for the rest of the series, THE DEMI-MONDE should become the cornerstone of a steampunk revival.

 

 

 

 

 

PLUGGED_HB_21_02.inddPLUGGED by Eoin Colfer (Headline)

Colfer has produced the perfect rollicking mystery. In tone, it’s probably closest to Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels or Scott Phillips’ The Ice Harvest, and I would recommend it to fans of both. There is comedy gold here – and Irish readers in particular will find more than their fair share of inside jokes – but the book is also plenty dark, and you’re never quite sure what’s waiting around the next corner.

It strikes me as a brave move for a man famous for his young adult fiction to branch out in a direction that is completely inappropriate for his usual audience, but with Plugged that move has paid off for Eoin Colfer.

 

 

 

 

OUTPOST-AdamBakerOUTPOST by Adam Baker (Hodder & Stoughton)

In all, Outpost is an assured debut, and a welcome addition to a fine sub-genre of horror. Fast-paced, dark and unpredictable – Baker’s not afraid to put his characters through the mill, or kill them off for that matter – it’s exactly what I expect from a good horror novel. There is plenty of stiff competition in this area of fiction – Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song being two of the best – but Outpost is a worthy comer that will have no trouble standing up with such fine company.

 

 

 

 

 

beauty-and-the-infernoBEAUTY AND THE INFERNO by Roberto Saviano (MacLehose Press)

Let’s not forget: this is a man who has given up any chance of a normal life – he is surrounded by bodyguards twenty-four hours a day – to let people know what is happening to his country. Anger is the most prevalent emotion here, but this is far from the rant that it could well have been.

Beauty and the Inferno is a tough read, but an important book that deserves an audience; Saviano has sacrificed too much for this book not to be read. It’s a good thing for him, and for the English-speaking world, that publishers like MacLehose Press exist and thrive, and bring such important literature to a wider audience.

 

 

 

 

KILLER MOVE - Michael MarshallKILLER MOVE by Michael Marshall (Orion)

Killer Move is an unconventional thriller, like the rest of the Marshall back catalogue. Darkly funny at times and disturbing and graphic at others, it treads a fine line between straight crime and straight horror, while never actually fitting exactly into either genre. Bill Moore begins life as a despicable human being, self-centred and worried only about how everyone else views him. But as his story progresses, and we watch his life fall apart, we’re suddenly in his corner, fighting his fight. It’s because the scenario Marshall outlines is so plausible and so topical: what if someone got hold of your various ecommerce and social network passwords and started to change peoples’ perceptions of who you are? Would we even notice before it was too late to do anything about it? The Internet in general and social networking in particular has made the world a very small place. But it is arguably – in Marshall’s mind at least – a darker and much more dangerous place: we never really know exactly who it is we’re talking to or why they might be interested in us.

 

 

THE SISTERS BROTHERS - Patrick deWittTHE SISTERS BROTHERS by Patrick deWitt (Granta)

Hidden behind Dan Stiles’ beautiful and striking cover is a surprising and wonderful piece of fiction. At times hilarious, at others grim and noirish, The Sisters Brothers is the perfect novel for people who like great fiction, regardless of genre – don’t let the fact that this is a Western put you off, if your preconceptions of that genre are coloured badly by those old John Wayne films. Living, breathing characters and a razor-sharp plot make this an instant classic up there with Lonesome Dove and Deadwood. It’s also one of the best books I’ve read this year.

 

 

 

 

 

REAMDE - Neal StephensonREAMDE by Neal Stephenson (Atlantic Books)

Thriller is certainly a good description, but it’s much more than that, and so much more intelligent than what immediately springs to most peoples’ minds when the word is mentioned. It’s surprisingly fact-paced for a book its size, and Stephenson manages to maintain the reader’s interest for the duration – an astounding feat in itself. My first thought was that a book about Islamic terrorists was a strange topic for Stephenson to tackle, but it’s no stranger than anything else he has chosen to write about in the past. His work is definitely an acquired taste but, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, it’s a taste worth acquiring. A thousand pages is a big commitment to make in this fast-moving world, but Reamde is worth every second. This one is, hands down, my book of the year.

 

 

 

 

HOUSE OF SILK by Anthony HorowitzTHE HOUSE OF SILK by Anthony Horowitz (Orion)

Horowitz does a fantastic job of keeping all the proverbial balls in the air, creating a perfectly-plotted set of mysteries, and a more-than-satisfactory set of solutions, while all the time maintaining the spirit of the original stories.

The House of Silk is a must for all fans of Sherlock Holmes. Pitch-perfect characterisation combined with a complex and involving plot leave the reader in no doubt that Holmes – and the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – are alive and well in the form of Anthony Horowitz. For anyone who has never read Holmes, this not a bad place to start; there is nothing here that requires previous knowledge of the characters, although those who have read the Holmes stories will surely come away with a much richer experience.

 

 

 

JULIA - Otto de KatJULIA by Otto de Kat (MacLehose Press)

In the end, love does not conquer all and nobody lives happily ever after. Julia is a bleak and oppressive love story, mirroring the environment in which the love was born. It’s a beautifully-constructed mystery disguised as a literary novel which uses the oldest trick in the book – the unreliable voice – to catch the reader off-guard and take his breath away. In a wonderful translation by Ina Rilke and the usual high-quality packaging that we have come to expect from MacLehose Press, Julia is not to be missed.

 

 

 

 

11-22-63 - Stephen King11.22.63 by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

IT may seem premature to include a book that I have yet to finish in my list of the best of the year but, at over halfway through I’m completely captivated by the story, and loving being transported once more into the world of Stephen King. The tips of the hat to King’s earlier classic, It, have only helped to cement this, for me, as a brilliant novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

AND THE MOST DISAPPOINTING OF 2011

Because there was some talk on Twitter early in the month about balancing the “best of the year” with the “most disappointing” or “worst” of the year, I’ve decided to do just that. Anyone reading through the posts on Reader Dad will most likely spot immediately which book didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I’m being kind and calling it my “most disappointing”:

OBELISK - Howard GordonTHE OBELISK by Howard Gordon (Simon & Schuster)

A great start leading to an ultimately poor debut for a man from whom I expected so much more. It’s an equally disappointing show from Simon & Schuster who could have improved it immensely if they’d only read it and provided feedback. If you’re tempted, save your money and pick up an 24  box set, where you’ll see Howard Gordon at his best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

COMING SOON…

In the coming weeks, look out for my review of Stephen King’s 11.22.63 to see if it warrants its position on the Top 10 *ahem*. Reader Dad’s first interview will also be appearing around the turn of the New Year, so check back to see my chat with one of my favourite authors. I will also be posting reviews for a slew of novels due for publication early in the New Year, so will be kept busy reading over the Christmas break.

It just remains for me to thank my regular reader, and everyone that pops in from time to time, for your support over the past ten months. I’d like to thank the wonderful publishers and publicists who have taken a punt on a newbie and provided me with some excellent review material. And I’d like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous 2012.

THE HOUSE OF SILK by Anthony Horowitz

HOUSE OF SILK by Anthony Horowitz THE HOUSE OF SILK

Anthony Horowitz (anthonyhorowitz.com)

Orion (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£18.99

Released: 1st November

Anthony Horowitz is, perhaps, best known by a certain generation of young boys as the man behind the popular Alex Rider series of books. It is, I think, less well-known that he is also the man behind some of the most popular mystery dramas currently on British television: Midsomer Murders, Poirot and Foyle’s War are amongst his creations. Young boys of a different generation (namely my own, and it is here that I start to show my age) know him better for an altogether different series of books: those featuring the Diamond Brothers, beginning with his 1986 novel, The Falcon’s Malteser. With The House of Silk, Horowitz makes his first (and hopefully not his last) foray into the world of probably the most iconic detective of them all: Sherlock Holmes.

When Dr John Watson’s wife takes a break to spend some time with a previous employer – and now good friend – outside London, he decides to move in with his old friend Sherlock Holmes for the duration. Whilst there, the men receive a visit from Edmund Carstairs, an art dealer from Wimbledon who spins a tale of train robberies, destroyed artworks, and a gang of flat-cap-wearing Irishmen operating out of Boston. He is afraid for his life, he tells Holmes, because a man wearing a flat cap has started standing outside his home, following him on evenings out; this man is, he believes, the sole surviving member of the Boston gang who has come to London to exact revenge on Carstairs for his involvement in the demise of his gang.

Holmes, intrigued, takes on the case, and visits Carstairs’ home. Within hours the man in the flat cap has burgled the house and fled to a small hotel in Bermondsey, where Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars track him down. When Holmes and Watson arrive on the scene, they find one of the Irregulars – a young boy called Ross – acting somewhat erratically. Inside the hotel, they find the man in the flat cap stabbed to death, and Holmes explains away Ross’s behaviour as being related. When the boy’s badly-beaten body turns up days later, Holmes and Watson find that things have taken a much more sinister turn, and that the mysterious House of Silk lies behind everything.

As is traditional, the story is narrated by the ever-faithful Dr Watson, now an old and infirm man who has outlived his best friend by several years. Bookended by brief notes from this elderly Watson, we are given explanation for why this story has never been told before. As is also traditional, the story opens with a lesson, by Holmes, in ratiocination and deductive reasoning, as he divines the reason for Watson’s visit based on a handful of seemingly innocuous clues.

I should mention at this point that I’ve been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for many years. Like, I suspect, many people of my generation, the abiding image I have of the man – and therefore the benchmark against which I compare all other Holmeses – is Jeremy Brett’s portrayal in the long-running ITV series. From the moment Horowitz’s Holmes opens his mouth, I heard Brett’s distinctive voice in my head and knew I was on to a winner, at least in terms of characterisation. The relationship between the two men is as fans have come to expect, with the mens’ mutual respect sometimes tempered by a certain amount of acerbic ribbing, usually by Holmes, of Watson:

“I take it you will join me?”

“Of course, Holmes. I would like nothing better.”

“Excellent. I sometimes wonder how I will be able to find the energy or the will to undertake another investigation if I am not assured that the general public will be able to read every detail of it in due course.”

Horowitz has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Holmes canon, and sets his story in a definite time period, both in the very real sense – the story takes place in November 1890 – but also by placing it in relation to the rest of Conan Doyle’s stories – we are some seven weeks after “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League”, and Holmes has just completed “The Adventure of the Dying Detective”. There is no doubt, both in terms of the references both overt and implicit, and the general tone Horowitz strikes, that the author has immersed himself in the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle whilst writing this latest adventure. It should be noted that this is the first Sherlock Holmes story that has ever been endorsed by the Conan Doyle estate, which should go some way to indicating how close Horowitz has come to depicting Holmes and the sometimes-hapless Watson.

Horowitz pulls out all the stops, reintroducing us to a whole cast of characters that have become, over the years, part of the national – if not global – consciousness: apart from Holmes and Watson, there is the ever-present and often-ignored Mrs Hudson; Detective Inspector Lestrade; Holmes’ unofficial police force in the shape of the Baker Street Irregulars; the more-intelligent older brother Mycroft; and, of course, Holmes’ nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. With one exception, these characters are introduced naturally, and play roles that are as familiar to any Holmes fan as the Persian slipper where he keeps his tobacco, or the infamous address at which he lives. Unfortunately, Moriarty’s introduction seemed slightly shoe-horned, as he appears as a kind of deus ex machina whose intervention, in the end, goes nowhere. But this is a minor quibble, and in no way detracts from the story, or interferes with canon.

The House of Silk consists of two mysteries which seem, at first, to be separate, one nested neatly inside the other and the two related, seemingly, by the flimsiest of links. “The Man in the Flat Cap” proceeds to a seemingly neat conclusion, and then Holmes hurries off in pursuit of the “The House of Silk”. But as the novel progresses it becomes clear that the two cases are more closely related than it seems at first and as the detective wraps up the mystery of the House of Silk, he returns his attention to the original mystery. In some ways, as with many Holmes stories, this is not a mystery for the reader to solve: it is a showcase for the singular talents of Sherlock Holmes. Like the stories of Conan Doyle, there are plenty of clues scattered around, and the eagle-eyed reader may be able to piece together some of the solution. Horowitz does a fantastic job of keeping all the proverbial balls in the air, creating a perfectly-plotted set of mysteries, and a more-than-satisfactory set of solutions, while all the time maintaining the spirit of the original stories.

The House of Silk is a must for all fans of Sherlock Holmes. Pitch-perfect characterisation combined with a complex and involving plot leave the reader in no doubt that Holmes – and the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – are alive and well in the form of Anthony Horowitz. As I mentioned at the start of this review, I have high hopes that this will not be Mr Horowitz’s last foray into the world of Holmes. For anyone who has never read Holmes, this not a bad place to start; there is nothing here that requires previous knowledge of the characters, although those who have read the Holmes stories will surely come away with a much richer experience. To quote Watson himself:

[I]t has been good to find myself back at Holmes’s side, […], always one step behind him (in every sense) and yet enjoying the rare privilege of observing, at close quarters, that unique mind.

I doubt I could have said it better myself.

THE CUT by George Pelecanos

THE CUT - George Pelecanos THE CUT

George Pelecanos (www.hachettebookgroup.com/features/georgepelecanos)

Orion Books (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

Released:25th August 2011

Another week, another shameful secret here at Reader Dad: The Cut – the first book in a new series featuring private investigator Spero Lucas – is the first George Pelecanos book I’ve read. With that out of the way, let’s get on with the review.

Spero Lucas is an ex-Marine, a veteran of Gulf War II who spent most of his tour fighting insurgents in Fallujah, and currently works as an unlicensed investigator in Washington, D.C. Most of the work he does is commissioned by Tom Peterson, a high-powered lawyer who will use any loophole he can find to help his clients beat a guilty verdict. One such job brings him into contact with Anwan Hawkins, a high-profile marijuana dealer currently in prison. Hawkins hires Lucas to find and return a number of packages that have been stolen from his dealers, or retrieve any proceeds made from their sale. What starts out as a simple piece of work soon turns sour, and Lucas finds himself embroiled in murder, kidnapping, crooked cops and psychopathic assassins.

Spero Lucas is an interesting character: he’s part of a large Greek family, most of whom – himself included – were adopted and renamed by their new parents. His father has recently died, and Spero seems not to be coping too well: ‘You go to the graveyard more often than you go to see Mom’ his brother tells him. Despite that, he’s a loving brother and son, and a devout and practicing member of the Greek Orthodox Church. But there’s another side to Lucas: Spero Lucas at work. Here we see a darker soul, a troubled man who has seen more than his share of killing, and who has issues getting it off his chest, even with the men with whom he served. He’s an unlicensed investigator who operates on the fine line between legal and not. There are scenes in The Cut which will make you question whether or not you like this man.

The Cut is a lean (just over two-hundred pages), fast-paced thriller told in language that is almost lyrical. Pelecanos has an encyclopaedic knowledge of DC and the people who live there, how they speak and how they act. This is a city filled with racial tension in which Lucas – a white man with a black brother – seems to be the only colour-blind person. It is at once an edge-of-the-seat crime novel and an examination of a man who has served his country in a foreign war, and is now trying to adjust to life back in his home town, the relationships he forges, and those he fails to forge, and how he can exist as, effectively, two separate people. With a supporting cast of characters who could each carry a novel of two of their own, The Cut is a fun ride with a very dark undertone.

Spero Lucas will return, and we can only hope that Pelecanos sticks to what proves to be a successful formula: short and sharp, dark, exciting and beautifully written. If you’re a fan of The Wire – for which Pelecanos wrote – or a fan of old-fashioned crime fiction – I’m thinking Chandler, Hammett, Stark – then The Cut is definitely one for you.

KILLER MOVE by Michael Marshall

KILLER MOVE - Michael Marshall KILLER MOVE

Michael Marshall (michaelmarshallsmith.com)

Orion (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

Michael Marshall is something of a cult writer. His first three novels, as well as the vast majority of his short stories, were published under the name Michael Marshall Smith and were mainly classified as science fiction (the novels) and horror (the stories). In 2002 he dropped the “Smith” and published his first piece of “crime fiction” in the form of The Straw Men.

Nine years later, “Marshall” has produced six novels (of which Killer Move is the latest), while “Smith” continues to produce a steady stream of short stories (you’ll go a long way before you’ll find a more disturbing short story than “More Tomorrow”, but that’s another discussion for another day).

Killer Move tells the story of Bill Moore, a Florida-based realtor who has an almost-perfect life: a great job, good standing in his community, a beautiful home in an exclusive gated community, and a perfect marriage to a woman he loves. If there is one blot on this idyllic life, it is that he is currently six and a half years into his five-year plan with no chance of achieving his goals under the current status quo. Moore is a techno-geek: he starts his day by reading positivity blogs, updates his Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and whatever other social networks he happens upon. He’s all about the “Bill Moore brand”, the image of himself that he has built up as the way he wants to be viewed by other people. In short, he’s a bit of an asshole, but a harmless one who most people actually seem to like.

When a small black card with the single word MODIFIED inscribed upon it appears on his desk – and its twin appears later at his house – he pays it very little attention. But then things start happening, things that affect his brand, and make him slightly uneasy: a book of fetish photography arrives from Amazon; an off-colour joke is sent from his email account to a group of friends and acquaintances. Things really take a turn for the worst when his wife discovers on his laptop a set of photographs of his female colleague – naked – taken with a telephoto lens. It doesn’t take long for things to turn violent, and Bill finds himself in the middle of a situation over which he has no control, and which he does not understand.

As with all of Marshall’s crime novels, there is a parallel storyline: the story of John Hunter, a man just released from prison after serving sixteen years for the murder of the woman he loved, a murder he did not commit. Hunter has only one goal: to find the people responsible and kill them, a goal which sets him firmly on a collision course with Bill Moore’s already unstable life. Following a well-established pattern in his books, Marshall tells the story from two viewpoints: Hunter’s story is told in the third person while Moore narrates in first-person for the sections where he is the star.

Killer Move is an unconventional thriller, like the rest of the Marshall back catalogue. Darkly funny at times and disturbing and graphic at others, it treads a fine line between straight crime and straight horror, while never actually fitting exactly into either genre. Bill Moore begins life as a despicable human being, self-centred and worried only about how everyone else views him. But as his story progresses, and we watch his life fall apart, we’re suddenly in his corner, fighting his fight. It’s because the scenario Marshall outlines is so plausible and so topical: what if someone got hold of your various ecommerce and social network passwords and started to change peoples’ perceptions of who you are? Would we even notice before it was too late to do anything about it? The Internet in general and social networking in particular has made the world a very small place. But it is arguably – in Marshall’s mind at least – a darker and much more dangerous place: we never really know exactly who it is we’re talking to or why they might be interested in us.

Fans of Marshall’s earlier trilogy will be pleased to know, without going into any more detail, that there are loose links between those books and this one, a small bonus for long-time readers. That said, it’s a standalone novel and a good jumping-on point for anyone who has yet to read Marshall (although I would personally recommend going back and starting with The Straw Men). Funny, thrilling, violent, the story moves at a cracking pace towards a devastating conclusion that will leave this story rattling around your head – and affecting your every online moment – long after the final page.

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