Reading List 2020 part 2

Continuing my look at reads of 2020…

Two titles by Ramsey Campbell, the first at the start of his career, and the second far more recent.

The Doll Who Ate His Mother
This is a tough book to rate, but when you understand this is Ramsey Campbell’s debut novel, the good and bad points fall into place. If you love Campbell’s work, this is a glimpse of a fledgling writer. If you’ve never read Campbell before, don’t start with this, for the author went on to bigger and better things garnering recognition well deserved. The story is also dated — understandably, written over 40 years ago. What people expected, accepted, and found frightening was entirely different back then. So was depth required. Both a horror story with satanic elements, and a thriller involving a disturbed boy perhaps corrupted by the perverse beliefs of those who raised him, alas, the book’s greatest flaw is the lack of menace (for a modern audience). I also spotted what should have been a surprise, but such is an annoying habit of mine. Some will dislike the surreal sauntering sensation the book invokes, but this lends a strange uneasy appeal to the narrative and can be forgiven as a writer finding his voice — and a distinctive voice it now is to those who appreciate his work. Still, there were moments when simple everyday things came across as overly described to where I had to read a sentence twice. Ultimately, the book fails to fall into the horror category for me, and it lacks a depth that left me feeling there’s more to explore, leaving characters shallow. The best and spookiest scene comes toward the end and takes place in a basement, and something about this still lingers, like seeing only the surface of a story through a murky window pane.

The Wise Friend
This story has the warm, welcoming tones of Lovecraft feeding on a sense of something otherworldly and disturbing. Worlds within worlds and secret universes glimpsed but seldom seen. Disquieting in style rather than scary. I felt a few sentences were awkward and would have liked more dialogue tags but enjoyed the read.

*

A Life in Parts, Bryan Cranston
Though biographies aren’t my preferred reading material, no doubt I would read more if they were all written like this. With a warmth that draws you in instantly if you’ve never enjoyed Bryan Cranston’s acting (though I cannot imagine why not), this is still well worth reading. This book not only gives the reader an insight to his life and career, it shows an actor with great instincts for the characters and roles directors should respect but whose writing ability might well make him an excellent author should he ever wish to pursue fiction writing. A favourite biography. I dipped in and out of this over the month of January.

*

Doll Manor, Chantal Noordeloos
I’ve always liked this author’s vision and, while I feel parts of this book could be improved, I love the themes and imagery used. In a book intended as horror for adults, portions contained a Young Adult feel, particularly the interactions between Freya and Bam, though this could be representational of the characters’ ages and therefore I felt distanced from them, feeling young women having gone through what these do they would grow up fast. This is the second in the Lucifer Falls series which began with Angel Manor which I preferred, and, though I feel this series could be more intense, it’s difficult not to like stories that contain the best of creepy things: a haunted manor, nuns, angels, and dolls. I looked back over the first book after reading the second and will eagerly check out the last instalment when it appears.

*

Tainaron, Leena Krohn
First, the copy I have is of a small hardback book that’s a delight to hold with an eye-catching slip cover, and drawings dotted throughout; a fast read at only 124 pages. The story from this Finnish prize-winning author is a fantasy told in a series of letters written by a foreign visitor and sent from an insect city. There’s no plot. We never know the recipient of these letters and only get to know the writer obliquely. I’ve heard the character writing the letters is female, but I never picked up on that and saw the letter writer as male, lost and adrift, having travelled to Tainaron seeking a promise that may never be fulfilled unless it’s found within. The most obvious nuance is one of change. There’s something visceral in the narrative, making this a book with an amorphous emotional impact. I’m sure many will find this nonsensical, bizarre, maybe pointless, yet there’s something memorable and almost poetic about the book. And, like a poem, will have significance for some, be meaningless to others.

*

The Shepherd’s Crown, Terry Pratchett
A strange experience reading the last Discworld novel, though it’s not the last Discworld novel I have to read. I’m in the dubious position of knowing there are no more books than those I have on my shelves and I should finish them. But once I do, there is no more. While I will spend time before getting around to the last few, there are still Discworld books for me to look forward to. Terry Pratchett was without doubt my most beloved author, and reading his last work would always be difficult, which is part of the reason I procrastinated. The four Tiffany Aching books aren’t my favourite, though I love the Feegles and own a Rob Anybody. This is a poignant end to the Discworld series and as a farewell from Terry.

*

Big Damn Hero (Firefly), James Lovegrove
I want to start by saying I found this a lovely paperback. The cover has an excellent design and texture, with flaps like a dust jacket. There are even small touches such as an image of Serenity similar to a watermark on the pages at each chapter. Alas, there were half a dozen typos within which pull me out of the story somewhat, but it’s worth overlooking those slight errors to enjoy another episode of Firefly. And that’s how this book reads — like a missing episode, particularly as we get to know more about the characters, especially Shepherd Book. Maybe a hard one to recommend, and no, it will never be like watching the series, but as a die hard Firefly fan I’ll take the novel over nothing and will pick up more as they’re released.

*

The Vampyre, Tom Holland
A well thought out, well-written fabulous blend of fact and fiction, but as one character tells the story to another, I felt distanced from the action. The strange circumstances which take Byron to visit the ancient castle are all too reminiscent of the most famous vampire, with, for several pages, Byron taking on a similar role to that of Jonathan Harker, and Vakhel Pasha, that of Dracula. There were parts I found absorbing, other areas where my attention wandered. The creatures that occupy the castle give the classic Igor competition. Still, overall it’s an excellent work with ideas both incredible and ludicrous, often hallucinatory. I came to love the book, though some of my feelings remain ambiguous.

*

The Diary of a Nobody, George and Weedon Grossmith
A classic which I first read as a teen, surprising my then English teacher when I chose it from the school library. Loved it then, adored it now. Perhaps surprisingly, it first appeared in Punch magazine in the late 1800s. Though simplistic — a middle-class gentleman seems to think his diary has as much chance to see publication as anyone else’s — it’s an exaggerated, humorous look at society and social observations, yet contains an underlying sadness. Part of the fun (and less cheery tone) comes from the things Mr Pooter finds so amusing and which plainly are not. The tale remains charming, and the illustrations delightful.

Part 3 next week…

Reading List 2020 part 1

At the start of a new year, I look back at my reading of the year before choosing some highlights, so here are a few well-remembered books of 2020.

I will begin with the Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski as the longest combined work I read this year:

The Last Wish
After watching the first season of The Witcher, I understandably wanted to read the books. Though the writing isn’t fancy, the narrative works well for this story, making for a warm, comfortable read that lends itself to the creation of a world that feels real from the outset. There are storylines that will be familiar for those who watched the series, and others that diverge from what they know, but they all work. Like the non-linear storytelling of the show, the book breaks up the various storylines making for especially interesting reading, and the first leaves on a perfect cliffhanger of note. I read a review calling the characters soulless and perhaps seeing the show makes me feel otherwise but I wouldn’t call reserved the same thing as soulless and find the details and inventiveness of The Witcher and the world he inhabits captivating enough to make up for anything the book lacks. While some depth may be lacking, this still brings the world of The Witcher to life.

Sword of Destiny
Different to the first book, this one written in sequential short stories. Some will be familiar to those who’ve watched the series. We get to know more of Geralt in this, see more glimpses into how he’s not without feeling. I’m not sure the classic fairy tale references quite work for me, but there’s enough in these pages to form the world of The Witcher in one’s mind.

Season of Storms
A prequel to the first two Witcher books, reading much like a standalone book. I would advise to read this as the third instalment, otherwise the story may confuse as there’s little to no introduction of the main established characters. I enjoyed this as the story takes the form of political intrigue and the theft of Geralt’s swords. I’ve seen some criticise the writer’s style. The only thing I find slightly annoying is the repetitive ‘was’ — it was raining; they were walking; it was dark in the alley — style, though this writer is not the only one who over uses this type of narrative, and I don’t know whether it’s in part owing to the translation. The world of The Witcher remains rich and absorbing.

Blood of Elves
From reviews, it appears the Witcher series is a little like marmite. While I found some passages in this book duller than any of the previous titles, those parts were necessary to the overall narrative. I like that these books come together with never the same pattern. A kind of tapestry of short stories that makes the Witcher so different. In this book we learn more of Ciri and what happened to her where the Netflix series left off.

Time of Contempt
While I’m not saying these books contain the best writing (perhaps a little becomes lost in the translation), they continue not to disappoint. In this volume, the situation heats up with all out battles and portents of war greater than the world of the Witcher has experienced to date.

Baptism of Fire
Though I’m not so taken with the tell rather than show sections of this series, I’m still absorbed in the world of The Witcher. This book reveals a new take on a classic monster and an ironic surprise at the end. On to the next…

The Tower of the Swallow
This series reads as a set of three, and a set of five. The first three have an entertaining, jumpy, short story feeling, with the following five more serious books making up a set of novels. The first three are much more fun. Book four of that five is the best yet with Ciri coming into her own and going through the worse trials, Gerait and Yennifer pursuing her for the right reasons with plenty of villains snapping at all their heels. Though the way the author writes and presents these stories receives mixed reactions, I like the non-chronological story telling. There were a few slower sequences that felt like a bit of an info dump, but otherwise I loved all the story elements.

The Lady of the Lake
As this is the last of an 8 book read I committed to, I was looking forward to this. Felt a little disappointed at the start. Ironically, one character close to the start of the book states she doesn’t like legends that mix fables with reality. While we can hardly quote tales of King Arthur as reality, they are of our world, and I’ve always preferred The Witcher to exist completely apart, not linked to famous myths and legends as we know them. The book also felt somewhat padded, but there are plenty of personal stories, and fabulous, bitter and sweet endings. Without spoilers, the most I can say is the conclusion felt a little nebulous, but the story of Ciri, Yennifer, and Gerait is a journey worth travelling.

*

I’ve been re-reading my Dean Koontz collection for several months now, so chose two from the four I read this year.

The Eyes of Darkness
A re-read, this book reminds me of why I’ve been a longtime reader of this author whose work is best described as supernatural thrillers. Though sludgy in places plot-wise with a few coincidences, this is solid plotting. More than that, Koontz must be one of the first in this genre who regularly started producing drop-kick heroines. More recent reviews seem to connect this book as being precognitive considering the troubles of 2020, but this is simply coincidence, and a subject written about by many authors; would be a pity if this happenstance puts anyone off an excellent read, although this novel is one to read for the journey more than the outcome. My only negatives is a wish to have connected to the character of Danny more and the ending feels a little abrupt after the investment of a great build-up.

Phantoms
Another reread for me as part of a possible book clearance. Dean Koontz often gets shelved in the Horror category, when his work is more one of supernatural thrillers, some with science fiction or horror sub-genres. This book covers all these in a well blended, often edge of the seat chiller. When death comes to a small town in several bizarre ways, it raises questions about life, various belief systems, and the nature of good and evil. I’m unsure if the sub-story featuring a murderer’s arrest worked for me or was necessary to the overall plot. And the ending also took a little longer to complete than was ideal, but this is a well-written book with an excellent story. One I dither over whether to keep.

*

Forward Collection, Amazon Original Stories:
While I felt none of the stories were perfect, and often that they were a mere glimpse into a larger concept, I can see where the various subjects create a balance with this collection of six stories available together or individually.

The Last Conversation, Paul Trembley
Though I didn’t like the second person narrative, this may be my favourite of the ‘Forward Collection’ possibly made apt as it concerns loss during a pandemic. There’s a lot left to the imagination, and perhaps that’s why it will fail for some readers. The big reveal is not as grand as perhaps we’d hope it to be. Still, this story is multilayered asking many uncomfortable questions. I couldn’t help feeling there’s a longer story hiding within this shorter work.

Ark, Veronica Roth
Enjoyable, but I found this to be the weakest of the 5 Forward Collection stories. An evacuated earth requires too much suspended belief and though the narration is beautiful, there was no true forward momentum and the ending proved a disappointment. This reads more like a vignette rather than a full story.

Summer Frost, Blake Crouch
An exploration of artificial intelligence that perhaps offers few surprises and yet does so with style, asking all the right questions and offering a variety of conceivable answers, all excellent reasons to suspect the development of A.I.

Emergency Skin, N.K.Jemisin
I greatly loved the concept of this story of an explorer returning to Earth long after those who destroyed their planet having fled from it, to find things are not quite how it seems. Oddly enough, this is another timely story being that we’ve all seen during the recent pandemic how the Earth can regenerate without human interference, though any one group being at fault is subversive and plainly fallacious.

You Have Arrived at Your Destination, Amor Towles
At some future point, should humans be able to choose not only the sex of their child but perhaps their life, too? And in doing so, does that parent abandon that child to a life that requires no guidance to a path already mapped out? For one man, it’s a question that makes him evaluate his own existence and choices. Alas, I didn’t find this drew me in deeply enough to more thoroughly explore this excellent concept.

Randomize, Andy Weir
This story made me smirk the most. While the technical jargon may fly over most heads, it’s easy to understand what’s going on here, leaving the question of what makes a crook and what part does technology play in the modern world. A reflection on techno highway robbery.

*

Continued next week…

Wishing you a Peaceful 2021

A strange year for all. One in which I started acupuncture (something I never imagined myself doing) to see whether it would help with a non-life-threatening but incurable complaint I was diagnosed with last year. Alas, owing to the Covid situation I could not complete the first set of sessions so still don’t know. And yes, despite what you may hear, sometimes acupuncture can hurt. Covid also interrupted a long planned holiday, especially two destinations we’ve been trying to get to and now may never reach. It’s also the year when a close relative had a serious health scare, but tests and months later they announced the all clear, so if I’ll take nothing else good from 2020, I will take that.

Towards the end of the year, I had to have an extraction owing to a wisdom tooth hooking under the tooth in front and killing the nerve. Unavoidable and didn’t go entirely to plan, but not as bad as I feared. Like most, we didn’t get out and about much this year. We’ve had a couple of distanced walks with our best friends, but aside from that have seen no one we know, including family.

I drafted several scenes for a ‘possible’ novel (yet to be confirmed/completed) and worked on an extremely rough draft of a first horror novel. I republished a romance, had a couple of short stories published in both the April and October editions of Night to Dawn magazine, plus republished my Sleepy Hollow poem, Ichabod, Ichabod, Ichabod, for the third time. I’m especially pleased to say I started drawing again, including learning how to sketch despite finding it a bit scary drawing straight off in black ink. And I read more than my planned minimal quota of books!!! Here’s to better in 2021. Best wishes, everyone!