I wouldn’t usually have more than a two-part catch up of my reading list of a previous year, drawing attention only to the best, but I found it so hard to choose from 2020s selection. So here are the last highlights of a year of great reading…
Sophie’s World, Jostein Gaarder
A magical, mystical blend of fact and fiction that makes for an excellent teaching aid for anyone wanting to learn about philosophy. I felt a little disconnected with the book at first — as though the letters to Sophie were a bit too much like sitting in a classroom, but as it progressed, I became swiftly hooked. The ending also felt a little too long, but overall the experience is not unlike falling down the rabbit hole, and I wish I had read this many years ago. Though I knew some facts, I didn’t know them all. The book even touches on natural selection and implications of more artificial selections/mutations caused by pesticides and disease control. The book is just as relevant today as when first written. It’s a lot to take in, but if you want a whirlwind tour of history and how philosophy has helped to shape our lives, this is an amazing book.
Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff
I love books that blend genres surprisingly. With richly portrayed characters and a real feel of both fantastical magic, and the more frightening and bitter horror of racism, the historical setting adds an uneasy depth that’s all too realistic. My one criticism is that I felt a little detached from the true cruelty of the era, and would have liked more emotional insight into the characters’ feelings; saying that, it’s all too easy to fill in the blanks. The book is easy to read in a series of individual but linked stories with a noir pulp feel running through them. (Side note: the book is not the same as the series, with a subtle tone down of the magic and mayhem, and with less blatant sex.)
Disappearance at Devils Rock, Paul Tremblay
An author who writes in his own style and created his own genre, bridging the supernatural and real life paranoia. Horror? I’m not sure I would categorise his novels in that genre, but horror covers such a wide spectrum these days. Sometimes his work has a Young Adult flavour, but then, as many of his characters are teens or children, this is fine. This novel sums up a mother’s terror over her missing child well, yet the true horror here comes from the way Tremblay captures the flavour of social media, and journalism, the criticism and blame aimed at victims.
The Troop, Nick Cutter
I would have finished this book sooner had time allowed; I didn’t want to put it down. At first, I wasn’t sure of the narrative. Being that the plot involved teenage boys, much of the tone expressed that initially, but then as things progressed, so did the style grow more lyrical and tighter, edging along the sense of well-constructed doom. Scary? Yes, owing to the subject alone, the sense that one day this or similar could happen under humankind’s egotistical restructuring of the natural world. This is an amazing book. I’ve seen negative reviews and understand the dislike of animal abuse portrayed, but sometimes it’s necessary to reflect reality. Even then, the story is painfully sad, making the reader feel for these boys. Other negatives, I don’t understand as there’s little point moaning about extremes when reading horror, as long as it fits the story without being gratuitous. The various personalities build a rich tapestry of human nature, good and bad. For me, the book ends on a perfect note.
An English Ghost Story, Kim Newman
This story was not what I expected. When one hears mention of a ghost story, one imagines the unsettling creak of a floorboard, lights that flicker as though from faulty wiring, an escalation of scares, and spectres at every turn, not a subtle disintegration of family that’s almost a metaphor. The tale begins with the family finding the perfect home and weaves an enchanting picture of country life that’s something out of a Victorian romance, creating the perfect escape the characters seek. What isn’t so clear is they cannot escape their own flaws, weaknesses that the power within the house focuses on and brings alive to disturbing extremes. Does it work? To an extent, although I think the readership will be one who also appreciates more literary subtext and likes classic works. If looking for an easy scare, this won’t be the book. I’ve not read much of Kim Newman, particularly in recent years, but this interested me enough that I may look up some of his other titles.
Two titles by Josh Malerman, starting with Bird Box
Having watched the film after seeing mixed reviews, I was keen to read the book as I had also heard good things about Josh Malerman’s work. I didn’t react to the film as badly as some, but found the book to be a completely distinct entity with far more tension. I also like how the story’s told with two lines of chronology running throughout — a present journey undertaken by Malorie and the events that led her to that point. I see the book has as many mixed reviews as the film, but I’m not a reader who needs a big reveal. And with a revelation that could drive the main character, Malorie, mad, the question of the best outcome will always be questionable. There’s no way a writer can please every reader with this type of story, only trust the book will find its own audience. The suspense comes from Malorie’s anxiety, the act of having to fumble around not knowing if a threat stands right next to you excellently portrayed. Will Malorie find sanctuary? Will she save the children? I’ll be reading more from this author, including the sequel.
Black Mad Wheel
While reading this, I didn’t feel I was reading horror, more a dark thriller, yet as I neared the end I realised how insidious the horror is. This is a story of what happens to a man thrown in at the deep end, morally abandoned, and used. The novel reads as a multilayered allegory; much of Malerman’s work seems to. For me, this one perhaps tries to illuminate the futility of war. I couldn’t help a rather bleak thought at one point that the only way to stop war was to kill everyone. Readers who like crystal clear details and simple endings may find this writer’s work is not for them, but like poetry or a song, it leaves some details for self-interpretation. Still, the second part feels like no ‘part’ at all, and over too fast considering the tremendous buildup. Despite this, and some question left hanging, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
The Complete Tales of Edgar Allan Poe
I began The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe way back, an enormous book I’ve had awhile and, as I thought, it took me ages to get through. Very much a book I intended to dip in and out of over several months. Many hidden gems here, though I have to say the reason his most loved and best-known poem is The Raven shines out. The cadence and emotional response it invokes never ceases to impress. In the story section, the first touch of the true Poe I know came with his story, Berenice. The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether has to be one of the oddest tales in the book, aided by a modern day imagination. Once again, the reason his best-known works stand out becomes clear, for they are the most compelling. Yet if you think you know all there is to know about Poe in things macabre, think again. Some of his stories are light, even possibly satirical and intended to be humorous. It feels sacrilegious to give Poe less than 5 stars, but I have to be honest. Some work I adored, some I liked, and some I hated. As someone who has always been a great admirer of classics, even I struggled when the content failed to hold my attention. But there are many gems here, and one has to recognise Poe’s talent and influence, so I’m glad to have read through to pay homage to an amazing body of memorable work.
The Other, Thomas Tryon
I’ve only read one other book by Thomas Tryon, many years ago, loved it, and still own. So I thought it way past the time I read another. I’d heard good things about The Other, and overall this is excellent. The trouble stems perhaps from the dated feeling of both the writing, setting, and how distanced a modern audience often is from subconscious scares. I wouldn’t categorise this as horror, though for those who like evil child stories, this undoubtedly deserves to be a classic. The construction that will meet with dislike from some was ingenious at the time it was written and remains good today. Most profoundly, a subtle unease exists within the pages that creeps into the mind. Unfortunately, the surprises didn’t feel all that big; again, perhaps because a modern audience is harder to shock.
The Library at Mount Char, Scott Hawkins
One book that defies description and… despite the hugely tough choice, I’m making it my read of the year. Though it has dark elements, it’s not listed as horror but as fantasy, but I cannot help feeling it’s all these things with a blend of an intellectual type of bizarro fiction. This is one book that acts as a lesson to writers everywhere, not to worry about reining in their imagination. Disbelief needs shelving. I couldn’t help feeling the opening section was almost designed to throw the reader off balance, though whether this was the author’s intention, it’s impossible to tell. The rest of the book is an easier, if peculiar, read, giving just enough away to hook the reader from beginning to end. For every revelation, there are bigger questions hanging over the story. Towards the end I felt the book (for me) was essentially about the pain of sacrifice (there’s a lot of pain throughout), though, like poetry is open to individual interpretation. I found it compelling and haunting despite being fantastical and confusing. This has to be one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, yet that’s why it’s amazing and completely unforgettable.