Search

Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

Tag

Quercus

Extract: A HARVEST OF THORNS by Corban Addison

9781784295233 A HARVEST OF THORNS

Corban Addison (corbanaddison.com)

Quercus Books (www.quercusbooks.co.uk)

£13.99

Millennium Fashions Factory, Dhaka, Bangladesh

November 4 2013, 8:53 p.m.

The sparks danced like fireflies in the semidarkness of the storeroom. They emerged from the wall outlet in a shower of white-gold radiance, casting a flickering glow across the concrete slab beneath them. The sounds they made, the snapping and crackling of suddenly electrified air, were drowned out by the rattling of three generators across the room, whose whirling magnetic coils were straining to satisfy the demand of hundreds of lightbulbs and ceiling fans and sewing machines on the floors above.

The cause was elementary, as the investigators from Dhaka would later discover – an aging circuit, copper wire exposed through melted sheathing, a worn-out breaker box, a peak load the factory’s designers had never anticipated, and the gentle, inexorable persuasion of time. A short, the investigators would say. A common fault in a building so poorly maintained.

But what happened next was far from commonplace. The fire that started to burn in sacks of cotton jute – the leftover cuttings of T-shirts, sweatpants, and children’s apparel destined for Chittagong piers and American closets – would sweep farther and faster than any fire before it.

This fire would ignite the world.

…………………………………………..

Old Ebbitt Grill, Washington, DC,

February 11 2015, 9:12 p.m.

Even at nine o’clock on a Wednesday evening, the restaurant was bustling. Waiters scurrying. Glasses clinking. Bartenders pouring. Gaiety erupting. And conversations – the central currency of this supremely political town – drawing heads down and faces together, translating ideas into speech, aspirations into asks, in an endless quest for an angle, a vote, a promotion, or that most liquid of Washington assets – a favor. Josh loved it, the multidimensional poker game of personality and power. For fifteen years, he had been a regular at the table, here at Old Ebbitt, a century-old, mahogany-and-brass eatery steps away from the White House, and at places like it in Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, and London. He had mastered its nuances, cultivated quid pro quos, and built an enviable reputation as an international journalist, netting him two Pulitzer Prizes and a book that hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list. But all of that was gone now. A single error in judgment had laid waste a lifetime of achievement. His colleagues at the Washington Post were colleagues no longer.

‘Joshua Griswold,’ said Tony Sharif, slipping into the green velvet booth across from Josh and draping his arm across the top. ‘It’s been too long.’

Josh shook his head. ‘I know it. Half the people in here are strangers.’

Tony’s face – a mélange of his Indian father and Anglo-American mother – remained impassive, but his eyes were alive with humor. ‘You’re getting old. I see gray in your beard.’

Josh gave a sarcastic laugh. ‘That’s purgatory for you. I feel like the Old Man of the Mountain. One day you’re a fixture. Everybody wants a picture. Then the earth moves, you disappear, and no one remembers what you looked like.’

Tony grinned ironically. ‘Could be worse. Nobody ever wanted a picture with me.’

‘You should ditch the news and try Bollywood,’ Josh jested. ‘With a mug like that, you could be the next Shah Rukh Khan.’

Tony put out his hand, and Josh clasped it. ‘It’s good to see you again, my friend.’

‘That makes two of you,’ Josh said.

Tony raised an eyebrow. ‘Who’s the competition?’

‘Reggie, the homeless guy at my old apartment building.’

Tony shook his head, and his eyes grew thoughtful. ‘It’s a shame what they did to you. The stories you wrote are some of the best in American journalism. The thing with Maria, it could have been any of us. She deceived a lot of people. It doesn’t change your reporting.’

She didn’t mean to deceive anyone, Josh thought. She did what she had to do. But he couldn’t say that. Not even to Tony Sharif, the man who had been at his side when shrapnel from an exploding IED sliced through their Humvee in Sadr City and buried itself in Josh’s thigh. Tony was the closest thing he had to a brother. But Tony would never understand Maria. She was a riddle in the flesh. Even Josh didn’t understand her, and he had spent years trying.

‘Don’t sweat it,’ Josh said. ‘Shit happens. It’s what makes our world go round.’

‘I’ll drink to that,’ Tony replied, raising his bottle of Sam Adams. ‘To shit. May it survive long enough for me to earn a pension and for you to get back on your feet.’

‘Cheers,’ Josh said, taking a sip of Heineken, his beer of choice not so much for its flavor as for its ubiquity across the globe.

‘So you’re in town again,’ Tony said. ‘That means you’re working. What’s the story?’

‘Corporate malfeasance,’ Josh replied. ‘Apparel supply chains. A body count. The underside of American business.’

Tony’s face lit up. ‘Sexy. Who’s the target?’

Josh lowered his voice. ‘Presto.’

Tony leaned back against the booth, clearly intrigued. ‘The Millennium fire. We reported on that, you know. A lot of people did. That photo was like Napalm Girl in Vietnam. But this time the girl in the picture disappeared. We couldn’t track her down.’

Josh nodded but didn’t reply, allowing Tony to interpret his silence.

‘Wait a minute,’ Tony said. ‘You have a source.’ He let out a grunt, then began to grumble. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. You found someone willing to talk.’

It was the response Josh had expected. For five years, Tony had been the Post’s bureau chief in India. Last year he had taken a senior editorial position in Washington, but his network in South Asia remained as far-reaching as the Ganges. Josh was intruding upon his territory.

‘I’ve got to hand it to you,’ Tony went on, struggling to be generous. ‘My guys would have given anything to keep that story alive.’ For a moment, he looked like he was going to probe, but then he didn’t. ‘So what can I do for you? You obviously got further than we did.’

The corners of Josh’s mouth turned upward. He still found it hard to believe. The e-mail had arrived in his in-box two days ago, its provenance untraceable. I have information about the Millennium fire, it read. It relates to Presto Omnishops Corporation. Hours later, when the rest of DC was asleep, Josh had met a man at the Lincoln Memorial who gave him the names of workers and factories in three countries, including the name of the girl in the photograph. The man had divulged nothing of his motives, but his seniority inside Presto was beyond question, as was his charge: he wanted Josh to make Presto pay.

‘This thing dropped into my lap,’ Josh said. ‘That’s all I can say. But I need your help. I need to find a fixer in Dhaka with high-level contacts in the apparel industry.’

Tony spoke without hesitation. ‘Rana Jalil. Except he’s in Los Angeles these days.’

Josh gave him a confused look, and Tony clarified, ‘Rana’s a mutt like me. His father owns one of the oldest garment companies in Bangladesh. His mother is Bangladeshi, but she was born in California. He has a law degree from UCLA. Dhaka’s his backyard. He helped us cover the Rana Plaza disaster. He’s an ace, and 100 percent trustworthy.’

Josh took another swig of beer. ‘What’s he doing in LA?’

Tony chuckled. ‘Shining a light into the dark hole of American fast fashion.’

Josh made no attempt to disguise his ignorance. ‘Explain.’

‘You know those teenybopper stores in the mall, the ones that dress their mannequins like hookers and make you want to keep Lily under lock and key?’

Josh nodded. Lily was his eight-year-old daughter and the light of his life. He was an absentee father, but not completely derelict.

‘A lot of the clothes they peddle are made in sweatshops in LA. The fashion companies know about it, but they don’t give a rat’s ass. So long as they keep feeding American teens a fad a week, they see it as the cost of doing business. Rana freelances with a public interest group called La Alternativa Legal, or “LA Legal.” They represent the workers in court. California has a labor law that gives them firepower against the brands. I don’t really understand it. But I know he’s nailing them to the wall.’

‘I’ll take him,’ Josh said. ‘Can you make the introduction?’

Tony whipped a smartphone out of his jeans and started typing.

‘He’ll be tickled. The great Joshua Griswold. He might even give you a discount since you’re out of work at the moment.’ After he transmitted the message, he got the waiter’s attention and ordered another round of drinks. Then he stared at his watch intently. ‘I’ll give him one minute, then I call.’

‘What?’ Josh didn’t know anyone that quick on the draw.

‘Wait. Ha! There he is.’ Tony held out his wrist and showed Josh his smartwatch. On the screen was a text from Rana. ‘He’s thrilled, as promised.’

Josh shook his head, marveling at the speed of new media. ‘I owe you one.’

Tony’s eyes sparkled, his lips askew in a beer-tinged smile. ‘You owe me nothing. I want this as much as you do. You break this story, I mean really break it, and I’ll see what I can do about getting your job back.’

Blog Tour Poster (1)

GUEST POST: On Research by PHILIP KERR

philip kerr Name: Philip Kerr

Author of: FIELD GREY (2010)
                 PRAGUE FATALE (2011)
                 A MAN WITHOUT BREATH (2013)
                 PRAYER (2013)
                 RESEARCH (2014)

On the web: www.philipkerr.org

July saw the publication of Philip Kerr’s latest standalone novel, Research, a thriller that takes more than a passing poke at the British publishing industry (we’ll have a full review of the novel tomorrow). John Houston, the bestselling author at the centre of Research likes, as the title suggests, to do as much research on the subject of his latest novel as he possibly can. To celebrate the novel’s publication, I’m very pleased and excited to welcome Philip Kerr to Reader Dad to talk about the research that went into the novel’s creation.

I did a lot of research for the book as you might expect from the title. I had a very pleasant few weeks visiting Monaco and the South of France in general and driving around, much as the two characters in the book do. I also visited Switzerland. Oh, and I used to live in Putney and Cornwall as Don Irvine does in the book. So these are all places that are very familiar to me.

I have wanted to do an in statu quo novel about the book business for a while. I have been a full time writer for 25 years and felt I could comment on the publishing business in a way that was both amusing and critical. Much of what the two leading characters say in the book reflects my own opinions about the state of the novel. That was fun to do. It’s set up to be a little like Sleuth, the Anthony Shaffer play that was a great film with Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. You never really know who is who or why. That seems to me to be the essence of a good mystery story.

The two characters come from the world of advertising and that is my own background. I worked in advertising for eight years, and at several large agencies including Masius, and Saatchi. I was not a diligent copywriter. I spent much of my time writing novels. Masius was very convenient for the London Library; and Saatchi was equally convenient for the British Library, which, in those days, was in the British Museum – a ten minute stroll from Charlotte Street. (I hate the new one). Both of the characters are versions of me – extreme versions of myself. I like to imagine grotesque versions of myself in certain situations. These are Jekyll and Hyde characters, of course. With the difference being that, like most people, each man is both Jekyll and Hyde, and the mystery is working out which one is the real Mr Hyde, if such a thing can be said to exist at all.

I spent most of my years as a copywriter wanting to be a novelist and trying to make it happen. A lot of copywriters had novels in their drawers, so I wasn’t unusual in that respect. I got lucky in the same way that John Houston got lucky, although with rather less success than he had. I don’t know what I would have done if Penguin hadn’t bought my first novel (which was actually the fourth one I’d written) back in 1988.

The book business has changed enormously since then. When I was first published in 1989, it was all about the writer, not the book. Publishers felt they were in it for the long term, to build an author. There’s less time for that now. It’s all about the book. Paradoxically, however, I think we’re moving to a place where the author becomes paramount again, but for all the wrong reasons. Increasingly we require authors to be celebrities; and if not celebrities, personalities who can masquerade as celebrities. It’s no longer enough to write a book, you have to be prepared to support it in person with appearances and talks and stand-up routines. I do an annual American book tour that lasts about three weeks. During that time I become a one-man show. Not every author can or wants to do that. But if you’re not prepared to do that kind of thing, the business will leave you behind.

John Houston has become a celebrity author. Which is a kind of hell, I think. When a writer becomes a famous face he loses something important which is the ability to observe, anonymously.

GUEST POST: Writing About Drugs in the 60s by WILLIAM SHAW

William-Shaw-©-Ellen-Shaw-600x600-480x480 Name: WILLIAM SHAW

Author of: A SONG FROM DEAD LIPS (2013)
                 A HOUSE OF KNIVES (2014)

On the web: williamshaw.com

On Twitter: @william1shaw

Photograph © Ellen Shaw  

When you write a book about recent history, what’s important is the difference between then and now.

There are the blindingly obvious differences. Want to set a TV drama any time in the post-war period? Simple. Make the cast smoke loads and loads of fags.

Others deserve a little more thought, though. Like the drugs.

We imagine, for instance, the sixties were awash with pot and purple hearts. Everybody must get stoned, sang Bob Dylan, so all the hippies were stoned, right? That’s where it gets murkier. Maybe that’s because, as the old saw goes, that if you can remember the sixties you can’t have actually been there.

(With that in mind, I was once commissioned by Bloomsbury to write a book about Ibiza during the Summer of Love and had to give up because beyond saying, “Yeah, it was great,” nobody seemed to be able to put their finger on what had actually happened.)

But actually, the bigger problem with trying to figure out what the sixties were like is that you have to dig through a lot of that kind of myth first before you get to what it was really like.

There was a lot of drugs hysteria, certainly. In Scotland Yard the newly formed Drug Squad was embarking on a series of highly publicised headline-grabbing raids. A Song from Dead Lips features the notorious John Lennon and Yoko Ono bust of 1968. Staying in Ringo Starr’s flat in Montagu Square, John and Yoko were raided by the infamous bent copper Norman “Nobby” Pilcher. (In the early 70s, the Drug Squad would be exposed as notoriously corrupt, taking bribes from dealers and even supplying dealers with drugs, but that was still years away.)

In the second book, A House of Knives, there’s another well-known police raid lurking in the background. One of the main characters in the book is the great 1960s art dealer Robert Fraser; it was Robert Fraser who persuaded The Beatles first to commission Peter Blake to create the Sergeant Pepper sleeve and then Peter Saville to design the so-called White Album. He’s a tragic figure.

In 1967, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Marianne Faithfull and several others had decamped to Richards’ Sussex mansion, Redlands, to embark on a weekend experimenting with LSD, the mind-expanding new must-do drug that The Beatles had first taken in 1966 in California. These were innocent days. Drugs were more than just recreational. This was a kind of quest. The Californian drug guru Dr Timothy Leary had pointed out that an acid trip appeared very like the hallucinatory states of mind outlined in the Buddhist spiritual manual the Tibetan Book of the Dead; LSD was suddenly being touted as a shortcut to spiritual enlightenment.

That weekend, when police raided Redlands, they found cannabis, amphetamines and a small amount of heroin belonging to Robert Fraser, who was already an addict and who was at the epidemiological centre of what became a life-sucking heroin dependency that would haunt the Rolling Stones and their hangers on for years. (Amazingly, the police missed opening a briefcase that was apparently stuffed with LSD, the main drug of choice for the Redlands visitors.)

The brouhaha around the case was immense. Times editor William Rees-Mogg, wrote his famous “Who Breaks A Butterfly on a Wheel” editorial, pleading for leniency for the defendants. But while the stars of the day, Keith Richard and Mick Jagger were famously acquitted, Robert Fraser was not so lucky and was sent to prison. As a character in A House of Knives, the brilliant, but heavily addicted Fraser is recovering from his spell in Wormwood Scrubs.

But the bigger truth is that though drugs were grabbing headlines in the 60s, they had still barely arrived. In 1964 there were only 328 known heroin addicts in the UK. But the idea of what drugs were for was changing fast.

In the first half of the 20th century, drug addicts were typically middle-aged and middle class and had become drug users during treatment for a medical condition. By the second half of the sixties, drugs had transformed into a cultural phenomenon, a source of entertainment and supposed enlightenment. As a result the numbers of users started to grow rapidly. But remarkably, despite all the headlines, the number of users was minute compared to today. Even by the end of the 60s that figure for the number of heroin addicts was still in the low thousands. Compare that with a quarter of a million or so users today.

The drugs hysteria of the 60s was primarily a cultural panic. The legacy of crime and ruined lives was yet to raise its uglier head. While researching A House of Knives, I talked to Caroline Coon, who’s best known as a music journalist, photographer and one-time manager of The Clash, but also an expert on drug culture. In the late sixties she founded an organisation called Release which counselled hippies arrested by the likes of “Nobby” Pilcher. She argues that the period of 1967-69 represents the period in which we stopped treating drug abuse as a medical problem and started treating it as an issue of criminality.

She’s got a point. In Breen and Tozer’s Britain, the Labour Home Secretary James Callaghan was busy drawing up laws that would criminalise drug users culminating in the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. In America Nixon was starting to call drugs “public enemy number one”. All you needed was a few strict laws and you could stamp this drugs menace out once and for all. Thirty years hindsight shows that approach was doomed form the start.

Far from being a decade awash with drugs, the truth is that in 1968-9, few people in Britain had actually taken any at all yet. Those that had took them in the hope that drugs could “set them free”. Which is exactly what Breen’s generation was so afraid of.

A SONG FROM DEAD LIPS by William Shaw

A SONG FROM DEAD LIPS - William Shaw A SONG FROM DEAD LIPS

William Shaw (williamshaw.com)

Quercus (www.quercusbooks.co.uk)

£7.99

When a young woman is found strangled and naked yards away from the recording studio on Abbey Road made famous by The Beatles, the case falls to Cathal Breen, a member of the Met’s D Division. Still recovering from the death of his father, Breen is far from popular with the men with whom he shares his office. Assigned Temporary Detective Constable Helen Tozer – an unheard-of development in the Metropolitan Police of 1968 – Breen sets out to identify the dead girl and bring her murderer to justice. As their investigation progresses, the body-count mounts rapidly, and it quickly becomes clear that there is more to this case than meets the eye.

William Shaw’s debut novel, A Song From Dead Lips, transports us back to London at the latter end of the swinging sixties. Casual sexism and racism are rife, and the incident room from which Cathal Breen works is a smoke-filled boys’ club with all that that implies. This is a scene we’ve seen before – think Life On Mars, for example – but here it forms little more than the launch pad for a clever and engaging mystery, and a reminder that these were much less enlightened times than we are used to today.

Cathal Breen – born in London, but with enough Irish heritage to warrant the nickname Paddy is the obvious choice for protagonist in this bunch of misfits. He is disliked by his colleagues for the very qualities that make him appeal to the reader: he is a clean policeman, an incorruptible and dedicated investigator whose duty is to the victim, and not to the whims of those higher up the food chain than himself. He’s something of a morose character – understandable given his recent history – and prone to finding himself in humiliating situations. Breen takes a beating at the hands of the author over the course of this first novel, but he becomes a more realistic and relatable person as a result.

Helen Tozer is Breen’s polar opposite – talkative and outgoing (‘Do you ever stop talking?’ Breen asks her early in their relationship), there is an immediate clash of personalities when the two begin working together. Breen seems almost incapable of coping with this new whirlwind force in his life, constantly on the back foot, defending his actions and statements. Tozer is an essential ingredient in the novel, providing, as she does, some useful insight into the case – the potential link to The Beatles who frequent the nearby recording studio on Abbey Road; the contacts in that much younger community that Breen would not have had otherwise. Shaw uses Tozer to highlight the sexist state of affairs that existed in 1968, but does so obliquely, ensuring that there is enough reason for her existence beyond illustrating a point.

Breen, perhaps because of his immigrant history, comes across as ahead of his time. When he questions the people in the flats where the girl’s body was found, fingers inevitably point towards the black man who has recently moved into a nearby house. Unlike most of his colleagues, the man’s colour is not enough to put him high on Breen’s list of suspects, though it quickly becomes clear that there is something less than savoury in the man’s past. In Samuel Ezeoke, William Shaw takes the opportunity to examine some wider issues: the brutal civil war in Nigeria and the formation of Biafra; the British role in the oppression of this new nation. These two second-generation Englishmen – one from an Irish heritage, the other from a Nigerian – provide us with some insight into national identity and zealotry that is as relevant in today’s society as it was in 1968.

A Song From Dead Lips is not without its problems, but they’re minor niggles in the grander scheme of things: there is a sexual tension between Breen and Tozer that often leaves Breen looking like a love-struck teenager. While it’s an extra insight into this complex character’s persona, it does tend to grate from time to time. And there is, I feel, too much emphasis on the smoking culture that was prevalent at the time. Everyone smokes. With few exceptions, every character to whom we’re introduced will be smoking at some point during their stint on the pages (including,for example, a server at a carvery). While it may have been the case, the constant references do nothing but distract from what’s going on and leaves the reader wondering if as much attention would have been drawn to such a trivial fact had the book actually been produced at the end of the sixties. Minor niggles that shouldn’t detract from the story, in the grand scheme of things.

In all, William Shaw has produced an excellent first novel and given us a pair of detectives that are unlike any others in the genre. A Song From Dead Lips is a beautifully-written and cleverly-plotted piece of fiction that is sure to keep readers engaged from start to finish. Shaw’s sense of place (not just London, but Devon and Cornwall) and time (Nobby Pilcher’s arrest of John Lennon and Yoko Ono on drugs charges plays an important role in the development of the story) are perfectly tuned and enhance the reading experience. The most important aspect of the book, though, are the two characters who form its heart and soul, and the – often fraught – relationship that exists between them. These are characters we want to visit with again and again, and that, for this kind of novel, is the key to success.

THE LEAGUE OF SHARKS by David Logan

THE LEAGUE OF SHARKS - David Logan THE LEAGUE OF SHARKS

David Logan (davidloganwriter.com)

Quercus (www.quercusbooks.co.uk)

£6.99

Junk Doyle was twelve years old when his mother stopped loving him.

When he is twelve years old, a strange-looking giant of a man sneaks into Colin "Junk" Doyle’s home and abducts his six-year-old sister, Ambeline. His parents find him at a nearby cliff top, having heard their daughter’s cries for help, and suspicion immediately falls on young Junk, who has never been particularly nice to his sister. Determined to clear his name and find – and kill – the man who killed his sister, Junk sets off into the world with the only knowledge he has about the man – the cross-shaped scar over one eye, and the tattoo of a shark’s fin and five stars, the symbol – he later learns – of La Liga de los Tiburones, The League of Sharks. After three years of travelling, Junk follows a man who looks like his sister’s abductor through a glowing green door on the seabed off the coast of Greece. On the other side, he finds a room filled with similar doors, and when he follows the man through a second door, he finds that he has returned to Earth some three million years into the future. Here, man is extinct, and animals have evolved into almost-human forms, and here is where Junk will find out what happened to his sister.

The League of Sharks is the first in a new young adult fantasy series from David Logan, the acclaimed author of Lost Christmas. Our protagonist, Junk, starts the story at twelve years old. Three years later – three hard years, working his passage on boats and ships, moving around the world – he seems much older than his allotted fifteen years. With this subtle tweak to the central character, Logan ensures that League – and everything that is to follow – will appeal not only to the target teen audience, but also to a much older fan of fantasy fiction.

Logan’s vision of a future three million years down the line is a depressing one for humanity, but an interesting one nonetheless. Humanity, it seems, is set to die out within a few thousand years of today, to be replaced by the results of our genetic experiments, beings that are part animal, part human. Earth in this far future is almost recognisable to twenty-first century eyes:

Jansia was part of a continent that vaguely resembled Europe, though, in comparison to a similar-sized map of Earth, the land mass was far smaller and there was a lot more water. This was true of the rest of this world.

Technology has surged forward in some respects – the land-ships, for example, which run on tracks like trains on land, and sail like ships when on water – and regressed in many others. This feels much more like a fantasy world than the science fiction setting that such a far-future setting might imply. There are comparisons to be made with the works of China Miéville, especially his most recent work, Railsea.

Junk meets a number of inhabitants of this future who are willing to help him. With some, the original species is quite obvious – Dr Octravinius the goat, or Cascér the shark – while others are less so – Garvan the elephant and Lasel the deer. Along the way, Junk will find himself facing strange birdmen who have not evolved as much as the planet’s other inhabitants; a lunatic religious cult which holds the key to the Room of Doors, and which seems to exist solely to ensure the destruction of Dr Octravinius; and the League of Sharks themselves.

The League of Sharks marks the start of young Junk’s journey, introducing the reader to this engaging young man who seems much older than his years and to the strange new world in which he finds himself. Logan has constructed a believable world that is at once dangerous and intriguing. He has also created the fundamental building blocks of not one, but two new languages that serve to add further dimensions to world and story. Perfect for fans of Michael Grant’s Gone series or the many and varied worlds of China Miéville, both young and not-so-young, it will leave you pining for the next instalment (The Nine Emperors, due August).

With a wit that will appeal to a wide audience, and a central character whose escapades will appeal, in particular, to young boys, David Logan enters the packed world of young adult fantasy with a fresh voice and an original take on an oft-told tale. Magical, thrilling and, at times, touching and sentimental, The League of Sharks – and whatever is still to come of this brilliant series – is sure to be a hit. Recommend it to your children, but be sure to have a sneaky read yourself. You might just find your new favourite read.

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.

   
untitled

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.

   
untitled

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.

LET THE OLD DREAMS DIE AND OTHER STORIES by John Ajvide Lindqvist

untitled LET THE OLD DREAMS DIE AND OTHER STORIES

John Ajvide Lindqvist (johnajvide.com)

Translated by Marlaine Delargy

Quercus (www.quercusbooks.co.uk)

£16.99

It’s difficult to believe that it has been a mere five years since John Ajvide Lindqvist’s first novel, Let The Right One In, was first published in English by Quercus. It’s a ten-year-old book that has taken the world by storm, spawning not one, but two excellent film versions, and launching the career of a writer who is the epitome of the modern horror genre. His latest English release, again from the excellent Quercus, is the collection of short stories, Let The Old Dreams Die, an amalgamation of his 2006 collection, Paper Walls, and the 2011 short story that gives the collection its new title.

The art of the short story is alive and well within the horror genre, probably more so than any other literary niche. It is the perfect vehicle for short, sharp shocks and lingering creeps. It is a form that most of the genre’s big names try out at some point – Stephen King, Joe R Lansdale and Tim Lebbon, for example, each has a handful of collections to his name, while Joe Hill’s first published book was his excellent collection 20th Century Ghosts. It is no surprise, then, that John Ajvide Lindqvist should have enough short stories under his belt to warrant a collection.

Most of the eleven stories in Let The Old Dreams Die share the common theme of love. It’s a slightly unexpected theme for a collection of horror stories, but this is where Lindqvist excels: these, for the most part, are not stories of the supernatural; they are stories of every day people getting on with their lives, and the horrors visited upon them, or that they visit upon themselves in the name of love, friendship, a need to belong. Here, we have the customs officer who feels like an outsider: she can sense when people are hiding things, and has made a name for herself throughout Sweden. But she feels alone, unable to form normal attachments to the people around her. Until the day she meets a man that she is convinced is hiding something, a man who makes her feel somehow whole. Here, the man who almost drowned, and who now believes he knows the secret to eternal life, an eternal life with the only woman he loves. But the pursuit of this goal breaks something within him, something between them. And here, the bored housewife who breaks into other peoples’ houses in order to discover who they are; she finds more than she bargains for in one house, the body of a man who has been stabbed to death. He becomes her little secret, a listening ear, a comforting absence; until she discovers that the feelings are not mutual.

As with any collection of stories, some are stronger than others. The very short “To hold you while the music plays” is probably the weakest of the bunch (it’s the one story that none of Lindqvist’s beta-readers liked, according to his afterword), but it’s almost impossible to pick the strongest. Each has a different effect on the reader, some outright frightening (“Village on the hill”), others deeply unsettling (“Substitute”) and yet others designed to leave the reader with a sense of disgust (“Equinox”). But they all share a sense of realism that is down to Lindqvist’s attention to detail: little tics that the characters have, a dislike of body hair, or of watching someone else chewing their food; and details of places that are consistent across the stories, making the firm point that these are real places, populated by everyday people to whom something extraordinary is happening. There is a passage in “Substitute” that perfectly sums up the sense of general weirdness that the stories evoke:

There were no photographs on the walls, just pictures of American Indians and wolves at sunset, that kind of thing. The contents of the bookcase looked as if they had come straight from a Salvation Army shop. The Family Moskat by Singer, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown…the books that are always there. Something in the background of an interior design suggestion from Ikea. Nothing was in alphabetical order, and the impression was reinforced when I found another copy of The Family Moskat on a shelf lower down.

For many of Lindqvist’s long-time readers, there are two main reasons for picking up a copy of Let The Old Dreams Die. The first is the longest story in the book; at just over 100 pages in length, “The final processing” is more novella than short story, and is a direct sequel to Lindqvist’s second novel, Handling the Undead. Using several of the main characters from the novel – Elvy, Flora, Hagar – the story tells of experiments being carried out on the “reliving”, and of Flora’s attempt to help them – her grandfather included – to die a graceful and peaceful death. The story itself provides a wonderful conclusion to the novel, and allows the reader to visit with some of the more entertaining characters once more.

Most exciting of all, though, is the book’s title story. “Let the old dreams die” (incidentally, the next line from the same Morrissey song that provided the title of Lindqvist’s debut novel) gives the reader a brief glimpse of what happened to Oskar and Eli when the book finished. Told by the ticket seller at Blackeberg subway station, it is the story of the love between his two friends: one a police detective assigned to the massacre at the swimming pool, and the disappearance of young Oskar Eriksson; the other a train ticket collector, a man we see briefly at the end of Let The Right One In, and quite possibly the last man to see Oskar and Eli before they disappeared. It’s an excellent story in its own right, a story of friendship, love and obsession, but it has the added benefit of providing closure for the novel, correcting an omission that Lindqvist was unaware of until the novel was already out in the wild.

Lindqvist’s influences are many and wide-ranging. There is a touch of Stephen King here (a man he has been compared favourably to on many occasions), a dash of Michel Faber and, unless I’m very much mistaken, a smidgen of the dark humour of Monty Python. What is most surprising about this collection is that, with the exception of the title story, it was written between 2002 and 2005. The only story that post-dates Handling the Undead is “The final processing” and they were all written before he set pen to paper on his third novel, Harbour. They show a writer of considerable talent, a man who knows how to manipulate the reader to gain maximum effect. His stories are the perfect mix of unsettling horror and black humour and, like any good horror story, their aim is simple: to make the reader feel unsure of their own familiar surroundings so that the light stays on to ward off whatever horrors are lurking nearby. His writing is beautiful, thankfully preserved in Marlaine Delargy’s brilliant translation.

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.

GRANDAD, THERE’S A HEAD ON THE BEACH by Colin Cotterill

untitled GRANDAD, THERE’S A HEAD ON THE BEACH

Colin Cotterill (www.colincotterill.com)

Quercus (www.quercusbooks.co.uk)

£16.99

When we first met Thai crime journalist Jimm Juree in last year’s Killed at the Whim of a Hat, she had been forcibly relocated to the somewhat backwards Maprao in southern Thailand with her mother – slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s – and the rest of her dysfunctional family. In the tradition of all good crime reporters, it didn’t take Jimm long to find a juicy story and before anyone knew what was going on, the sleepy village of Maprao and the nearby small town of Pak Nam were coming down with dead bodies.

The second novel in the series opens, as the title might suggest, with the discovery of a head on the beach at the back of the Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant, where Jimm lives and works. With the same sharp humour and self-deprecation that Jimm displayed in the first novel, we discover that no-one seems particularly interested in the head, nor in investigating who it belongs to, or why it has ended up on the beach. Outraged and intrigued in equal measure, Jimm sets out to track down a story and finds herself in the middle of an international slavery ring involving the local police, dodgy charities, deep sea fishing vessels and the local Burmese immigrant population. Throw in a couple of mysterious women who have just checked in to the resort and it looks, once again, like living at the seaside could be detrimental to one’s health.

For perhaps the first half of Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach (perhaps the best book title you’re likely to see this year), the pace and style matches that in the earlier volume in the series. Told in first person by Jimm, the story, while never boring, takes its time to get to the meat of the mystery. In an aside in the first handful of pages Jimm tells us:

I’m spending too much time here on sidetracks and making a mess of what should be a tense and exciting opening to my story so I’ll save all the gripes and family intrigues for later.

Let’s face it, the humour is the essence of a Colin Cotterill novel, and the voice and mannerisms of Jimm are what made Killed at the Whim of a Hat such an endearing read, and enticed this reader back for a second try. And since the tangents and sidetracks are no less entertaining than the mysterious origin of the head, or the mysterious origin of the resort’s two guests, it’s easy to sit back, relax, and enjoy.

Around the halfway point, things take a dark turn, and the tone of the novel changes very subtly. The humour is still there, but it is now strained, tempered by the dangerous situation in which Jimm and her friends and family now find themselves. It’s a superb bit of writing by Cotterill who manages to strike the right balance between light-heartedness and tension to leave the reader unsure of just how safe we are, and how likely it is that we’ll reach the end of this second novel with fewer main characters than we started with. This change in tone is down, in part, to the fact that Cotterill has chosen to deal with local “big issues” – the treatment of the Burmese immigrants in Thailand, and the slavery into which they often find themselves forced; real problems affecting the region that he has attempted (quite successfully, it must be said) to address head-on. What we end up with is a lot fewer belly-laughs than we got from Hat (although there are still plenty to be had) and a tense, riveting story that, far from being the farce it was always in danger of becoming, defines these characters and gives us some insight beyond the sass and sarcasm that we have seen so far.

One of the novel’s minor plot points involves karaoke, and Cotterill replaces Hat’s “Bushisms” chapter headings with the mangled lyrics of famous songs as performed by the lounge performers and cover bands of Thailand. Hilarity, as you might expect, ensues, and most people will be glad to know (I certainly was) that the correct lyrics are collected at the end of the book, just in case you can’t work them out for yourself.

Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach shows a writer willing – and more than able – to experiment with the form, and produce a novel that certainly threw this reader off-guard, based on my limited experience of his work (so far, I have only read the Jimm Juree novels). It’s a much darker read than its predecessor, but still retains the trademark humour that defined the main character. There is a danger that the series could become somewhat formulaic (e.g. two unrelated mysteries to solve in each outing; the reliance on various family members and friends to assist with the investigations) but the uniqueness of setting and characterisation more than covers any minor quibbles I have in that area. This is a must-read for anyone looking to escape to more exotic climes, anyone looking for smart, entertaining mysteries and, above all, anyone looking for a fast, fun, engaging read.

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.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑