This year’s Kindle total is 59. That’s lower than last year’s 72 AND the previous year’s 60. Go me! These annual round-ups of reading have become a bit of a Thing for me but the real difficulty is deciding what to include and they are steadily getting longer.
Earlier this year, I found out quite by chance that Alan Garner was publishing Boneland, the third book in the Weirdstone Trilogy. This came as a bit of a surprise as until then I’d had no idea that The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath were anything other than a book and its sequel. The Weirdstone books, along with The Owl Service were some of my favourite books as a child – I remember my aunt giving me the first book and sitting in her attic in Yorkshire greedily absorbing a rich tale of lost bracelets, magic and wizards which has sparked a lifelong interest in ancient history and mythology. The attic had been converted into a room, by the way, so it wasn’t like I was locked in like some sort of midget Mrs Rochester or anything. Boneland is set many years after Gomrath, with Colin as a grown-up professor living in a kind of shack and obsessing over his lost sister, Susan, as he can’t remember anything before he was 13 years old. Readers of Gomrath may remember that Susan was kidnapped and possessed by the Brollachan but rescued by her brother (if you didn’t know this already then sorry for spoiling it for you). Narratively, it’s nothing like the previous two books and you have to pick an awful lot out of metaphors and layers of meaning. I liked it a lot but I did have to read it a couple of times to grasp what was going on. Don’t expect any dwarves.
The Green Man
I did have a bit of a fit of buying books I’d read as a child this year and along similar lines were John Gordon’s The Giant Under the Snow and Mary Gentle’s A Hawk in Silver. The Giant Under the Snow has three children who find an ancient belt buckle suddenly drawn into a battle for control of the Green Man (the eponymous giant under the snow). It’s pretty much all set in midwinter with some beautifully-described bleak landscapes and in places a real breath-holding tension. A Hawk in Silver is the exact reversal in its seasons with most of the book taking place in midsummer and a final showdown in midwinter. Again, a young girl finds a strange coin and she and her friend are immediately dragged into a centuries-old stand-off between good and evil factions of faerie. It’s less finely written than Giant but still very enjoyable. It also turns out there’s a sequel to Giant (which again, I had no idea about) called Ride the Wind though sadly it’s not available on Kindle.
The last book published by the late Iain Banks before his sad death from cancer in 2013, was Stonemouth. I’ve always rather enjoyed Banks’ books – Whit remains a long-time favourite which I’ve re-read many times. Stonemouth is not dissimilar to 2008’s The Steep Approach to Garbadale, with narrator Stewart returning home for a funeral after several years of enforced exile to rather unwillingly yet compulsively unearth a web of secrets, lies and set-ups which led to his departure. Banks had always created some lovely and complex characters and Stonemouth is no exception – in fact the motivation of one character to do something rather catastrophic remains hidden. Normally this would irritate the living shit out of me but for some reason, with Banks, I don’t mind.
I utterly loved Joanna Kavenna’s Come to the Edge, in a large part because it’s bonkers but also for its survivalist heroine Cassandra who can launch into an inventively articulate rant on anything from refined sugar to flushing toilets. The narrator, who remains unnamed, is jilted by her husband and flings herself into a gruelling life of goats, thunderboxes (you’ll find out) and firewood chopping at Cassandra’s isolated farm. Enraged by the unused second homes in the valley, Cassandra drags the narrator along on a mission to resettle local people who can’t afford to buy houses. It’s a hilarious and witty sideswipe at townies, middle-class obsessions with property and possessions, and self-entitlement.
On the other hand, I didn’t utterly love J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. Having seen reviewers rage back and forth for a solid year over whether it’s a masterpiece or tedious drivel, I concluded that it’s neither. It’s just not very interesting or thought-provoking. I got the whole heavy-handed don’t-judge-the-poor message behind the story of Krystal and her mum, I got the whole seething-yet-unseen-undercurrent-in-peaceful-village backdrop. But the characters just seemed too much like parodies and almost to a man/woman were dislikable. Not that I expect to want to be BFF with the characters of every book I read and some writers manage to create sympathetic yet dislikable characters, but JKR’s were just awful people. Not only that, but the ceaseless rumination over parish council matters bored me to tears.
As I’ve mentioned many times previously, I’m a huge fan of John Connolly. During the wait for the next Charlie Parker book after last year’s Wrath of Angels, I came across a Kindle short story from Connolly, The Wanderer in Unknown Realms. Set sometime after World War I, Lionel Maulding, a rare book collector has gone missing. Former soldier Soter is tasked with finding him, leading to some exceedingly grim discoveries. It’s one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. While some of the events in it are truly horrible and shudder-making, I was left with a nagging doubt as to whether Soter was having a nervous breakdown or everything was actually true. Connolly’s talent for creating understated yet terrifying stories is pretty much second to none and even a couple of weeks after finishing this particular story, I had a sense of residual creeping unease. Reviewers have criticised the ending but I thought it worked really well.
One of the things I really like about the Parker series is the slow realisation which builds through each book, both on the part of the reader and Parker himself, of a knowledge yet half-known of something key to him and his nature. Something which challenges everything Parker (and us) thought he was. Much as I love these books, I forsee a final episode for Charlie Parker at some point in the not-too-distant future and I anticipate that as eagerly as I wish they could go on forever.
As it’s been nearly ten years since Jonathan Aycliffe published a book under that name (he also goes by the name Daniel Easterman) I was doubting whether or not we’d ever see one of his disturbing horror stories ever again. Except in October this year, The Silence of Ghosts was released. Having spent many a saucer-eyed hour reading his previous work while peering nervously at shadows in the room to see if they contained an undead spirit, I was pretty excited, let me tell you. Unfortunately, Silence was quite disappointing. Invalided WWII sailor Dominic Lancaster and his sister Octavia return to their Lake District family holiday home and find it occupied with some scary children (seriously, why are children so damn frightening?) and something evil lurking in the upstairs floors. The premise is good, but the characters are flat, the dialogue clunky and the end, which should rise to a crescendo of tense fear simply tails off rather inconclusively. It lacks the unseen menaces of The Matrix, the unexpected violence and darkness of Naomi’s Room or the threat of The Talisman. Many of Aycliffe’s previous horror stories contain themes of the occult and resurrection of the dead and Silence to a certain extent followed the same themes, but it just felt half-hearted and it’s such a shame. It would be lovely to see a return to form for Aycliffe in future books.
Alex Marwood released her latest book, The Killer Next Door, which I had been eagerly awaiting. I did a review of it here. As with last year’s The Wicked Girls, Marwood effortlessly shows the reader the underbelly of life in the form of a grubby London bedsit occupied by residents with varying secrets. Beware, it’s quite grim in places but the characters are superb and really drive the story.
And finally to one of the biggest book-to-film adaptions of recent years – Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. I’d avoided the Twilight books and films until I read this article by Observer film critic Mark Kermode, basically for the same reason that other grown-ups avoided them. So I watched the Twilight films. Then I watched them again. Even my husband, after an initial bout of sneering, liked them. In fact, I think he likes them even more than I do. Watching the films naturally led on to reading the books. Analysing the whole Bella/Edward/Jacob monster-love-triangle has been done to death so I’m not going to revisit it very much apart from a small bout of what-the-fuckery.
I’d thought Edward’s behaviour in the films was controlling and stalkery but it turns out they toned it down from the books. I mean, the guy turns up in Bella’s bedroom night after night to watch her sleep. How fucked up is that? He (and Jacob for that matter) spend the majority of their time telling her what to do, what not to do, who to hang out with. They do that whole push-pull thing constantly, one minute fawning over her and telling her she’s the best thing to ever happen to them before flying into a helpless flailing rage at their own inability to deal with their emotions, blaming her for it and stropping off for months on end. Both men withhold physical affection when it suits them and cite Bella’s attractiveness to them as the reason why. It’s astonishing. Kermode reckons Bella is a strong heroine but I just can’t see it. Maybe I’m missing something important in the books but I find her wearyingly lame, infuriatingly subservient to all the men around her (apart from her determination to turn vlad) and it depresses me a bit that she could be a role model for teenage girls.
Allie Brosh for her long-awaited book, Hyperbole and A Half. With stories taken from the blog of the same name plus a few new ones, this should keep fans (of which I am one) very happy. It’s available on Kindle, though I can’t imagine how it would look given its vivid colour palette. It’s genuinely funny, heartbreaking in places and inspired. How can anyone not love Simple Dog?
Ben Aaronovitch for the latest in his PC Peter Grant series, Broken Homes. I really like these. An Amazon reviewer says it’s pretty hard to capture how much fun the Peter Grant series is for a reader and I totally agree. They are witty, sharp and imaginative. There also a big shock in this one.
Josephine Tey for the historical detective story The Daughter of Time. With all the hoo-ha about the discovery of Richard III’s remains in a Leicester car park, now would be a good time to read this. A police detective laid up in hospital decides to investigate the princes in the Tower mystery. It’s wonderfully written and fascinating.
Matt Haig for The Humans. An alien taking over the body of a gifted mathematician finds that the human race isn’t quite as awful as previously thought. It’s original and lovely, described as a ‘love letter to humans’.
Nicci French for Waiting for Wednesday. I’ve always liked the Nicci French books though I do have to say I remain amazed at Frieda Klein’s ability to disrupt police investigations with impunity. This one is no exception – excellent quality crime writing.
Elizabeth Haynes for Human Remains. I liked this a lot better than her later novel Under a Silent Moon. In many ways it’s quite a depressing book but the story of a series of people dying apparently of natural causes is thought-provoking and tense.
And if you’re wondering why I haven’t done Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, it’s because I haven’t had time to read it yet! Next year…