I read 70 books this year, of which only a baker’s dozen were first published in 2014. Some I bought, some I got from the library, a few were sent me gratis. I used to review for The Times, now I don’t, and when the occasional review copy turns up – especially if it is a book I actually want to read – in these days of not-being-a-reviewer, I feel a little guilty, getting something for nothing.
So, although it is a little late, for what it’s worth, here’s my round-up of the ones the publishers sent me, and the others...which are all worth reading.
The ones I was sent:
ANNIHILATION and AUTHORITY by Jeff VanderMeer – The first two volumes of the “Southern Reach” trilogy (the 3rd now awaits my attention), they came with a certain amount of hype attached, which has a tendency to make me start reading with a critical chip on my shoulder....but that chip was soon knocked off. These have to be among the most interesting and memorable new novels of the year. I preferred the second to the first, which may be unusual. But I found a coolness to the tone of the first book made it interesting more than engaging, and somehow the all-female cast of the expedition in the first book did not convince me....I kept seeing them as men. It’s probably just me, because when I went back, there was never anything that seemed specifically masculine, and I liked the way the author avoided cliché and the usual feminine markers, but...I was forever reminding myself: “these are supposed to be women.” I might have a different take if I reread it, and I will say that these books strike me as being well worth re-reading. The 2nd volume is very different to the first – or so it seemed – yet it also carries on the story, adds to it, makes you reconsider both events and characters from the first – and I found myself much more interested in the main character of this one, and more engaged by the voice. Perhaps I shouldn’t even be writing about the two books without having read the third, but... they were, after all, published individually. I don’t know yet if they are really one very long book divided into three parts, or three quite short novels dealing with parts of a connected story. They are also, physically, quite desirable objects. They feel nice to hold, are beautifully designed; a good, clear, readable type-face, and nice packaging. Real books are not dead. Take that, e-books! (Published by Fourth Estate)
FUTURE PERFECT by Chris Evans and Roy Kettle – Times are strange indeed – and the future of publishing looks grim -- when a science fiction novel as clever, inventive and purely entertaining as this one by two previously professionally published authors was turned down often enough that the authors decided to publish it themselves. This book is likely to be read with special enjoyment by long-time fans of the genre (Chris and Roy are fans themselves), but the plot and ideas are intriguing enough to appeal to a much wider audience. It would even work as a movie. My only complaint is that it’s a little longer than it should have been. I admit, I tend to think most books published these days are too long, but once I was past the half-way point here I began to get impatient with some scenes that went on just a little too long, or needn’t have been included at all, as they began to frustrate my desire to get on with the story – to find out the answers behind the teasing and deliciously convoluted plot – without offering much in way of compensation. (Published by Pitchblende Books, ISBN 9780992879006 )
AN ENGLISH GHOST STORY by Kim Newman – I do love a good ghost story, and Kim Newman is such an original (and well-informed) writer, in whatever genre he tackles, that I expected something really special. It turned out to be a nicely atmospheric, engaging tale about a family going off the “start a new life” in an old house in the country – could there be a more traditional and clichéd opening to a haunted house story? But instead of being a horrible, spooky old place that will clearly be nothing but trouble (so you wonder why the characters could be so stupid), the property is one that anyone might fall in love with.... Drawing on history, literature and the lore of the land, the author combines fantasy and horror tropes, as dreams turn to nightmares. I had a few quibbles – when it came to those particular plot-challenges of our times, the mobile phone and the internet, I am sorry to report the hurdle was not cleared -- but Kim met the major challenge of writing exactly what he promises with the title – an original, yet classic, and very English, ghost story. (Published by Titan Books.)
THE RABBIT BACK LITERATURE SOCIETY by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen – I think this one was actually published near the end of 2013, but nobody seems to have noticed it then, and I first encountered it in 2014, so....I get to make the rules. And this is one book too good to miss. It is a Finnish novel (translated by Lola M. Rogers), a book about writers and readers and librarians, one for people who love reading, and one of the strangest and most unusual fantasies I’ve ever read. It is hard to know what to compare it to....I was reminded at times of Haruki Murakami, of Jonathan Carroll (especially The Land of Laughs) and Tove Jansson. If that sounds appealing at all, believe me, you will want to read this strange and unusual novel. (Published by Pushkin Press.)
The ones I bought myself:
A LOVELY WAY TO BURN by Louise Welsh – I’ve loved everything I have read by this author. In this one, although there is a crime story involved, the setting is during a near-future pandemic in Britain, so there’s also a strong dystopian element. It is absolutely gripping, I did not want to stop reading, and my only complaint is that I was forced to stop -- there’s no real conclusion, because this is the first of a projected trilogy.
THE PAYING GUESTS by Sarah Waters – Another favourite author, but I didn’t like it as well as some others. As expected, it is an absorbingly (almost suffocatingly) detailed narrative that convincingly evokes an earlier time in London.
HOW TO BE BOTH by Ali Smith – Beautiful written, rather tricksy tale of art and history, of the past and of modern life....but I’m still not sure what to say about it. I may need to read it again, and soon.
THE PERIPHERAL by William Gibson – Reminded me I should read more science fiction to exercise my brain. There is a lot to figure out in the first part of the book, and I had a bit of a struggle – but a most enjoyable one. Fortunately, it does get easier, and it was a lot of fun. Plot, action, adventure, ideas, plus good writing.
LIAR, TEMPTRESS, SOLDIER, SPY: FOUR WOMEN UNDERCOVER IN THE CIVIL WAR by Karen Abbott. See, I don’t spend all my time reading fiction. Although I must confess this one is “narrative history” written with all the suspense, energy and occasionally overheated prose style of a best-selling novel -- and fantastically exciting. It is well-researched, well-documented, abundantly foot-noted....but not all of it is true. The author explains her decision to incorporate as part of her story the otherwise undocumented, far-fetched or utterly unbelievable stories her subjects told about themselves, inserting doubts or counter-facts only in the notes at the end, rather than interrupting the flow of narrative. Usually, I think it works. But I did object to one thing she included like that – supposedly the diary of a prostitute, but almost certainly a modern fake. Since it was not connected to any of the four women who were her main subjects, I thought she should have left it out, instead of adding to the mess of made-up documents and conspiracy theory that swirls about in that period.
FIVE CHILDREN ON THE WESTERN FRONT by Kate Saunders – This might be my favourite book of the year. I am such a big fan of E. Nesbit and all her books – but especially the “Five Children” books – that when I heard about this one I was fascinated but also horrified in case Kate Saunders had got it all horribly wrong. But how could it be done right? Well – she did get it right. It is lovely and funny and warm and heart-breaking. I feel E. Nesbit must have been hovering over her shoulder.
The ones I got from the library:
KNIGHTLY AND SON by Rohan Gavin – A smart, deductive thirteen-year-old sets out to solve the mystery that left his detective father in a coma.... Not quite as clever as I had hoped, but it is, after all, a book for children.
THE ZIG ZAG GIRL by Elly Griffiths – Set in Brighton in 1950, involving a series of murders that seem to be connected to magicians, and specifically to a group who were brought together during the war to concoct illusions to fool the enemy.... A smart, clever, well-paced and unusual mystery.