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!

Update Dec 2020

Hi Everyone!

AT HOME:

Though it would usually be our year at home, anyway, considering everything happening we stayed in. If nothing else, we expected the long trip we would have to take becoming gridlock, and I did not cherish the thought of stopping in motorway services for a break. The shops heaving have been bad enough. Then, of course, the rules changed and we couldn’t have made such a long trip to relatives in a day. Have spent a long, relaxed, peaceful time at home together, the only downside has been the almost constant rain, gusting winds from storm Bella, and waking up to a smattering of snow, quickly melting.

FILM/TV:

I thoroughly recommend Netflix’s Night on Earth series. I have relatives no longer here who would have cried to view such outstanding photography. Also, the more you learn about the planet and the creatures we share this world with, the little you realise you know. For writers everywhere, strange and wonderful creatures don’t have to be alien. They are right here.

We started the Christmas watching rundown with Netflix’s Jingle Jangle, a fine example of the quality viewing the service provides and why it’s giving other filmmakers migraines. We followed this with both films in The Christmas Chronicles. And watched all our seasonal favourites, of course.

I picked up a cheap copy of How Green Was My Valley on Blu-ray and cannot recommend it enough in a cleaned-up version. It’s like never having seen it before and a story I cannot help but love. Have also been watching an old British television series, Life on Mars, about a man hit by car catapulted in reality or his imagination back to the 70s. The series is full of nostalgia, both good and bad, especially a reminder of how sexist society was back then.

READING:

The Complete Tales of Edgar Allan Poe

I began The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe back in May 2019, 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.

Dan Leno & The Limehouse Golem, Peter Ackroyd

I like how each chapter within the book jumps from one perspective to another, told in various styles. Alas, the parts that were far more tell than show made portions of the book less interesting, in particular because some information made me feel as though I was undergoing a lesson. I also feel having previously seen the film somewhat diminished my experience. Still, this is a wonderfully woven Victorian melodrama, perfectly historically blended. Both an excellent book and film, but not one needs to revisit.

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.

Black Mad Wheel, Josh Malerman

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 Library at Mount Char, Scott Hawkins

One book that defies description. 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 is 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.

WRITING:

I came across a wonderful comment praising the Lethbridge-Stewart series of novels, and mentioning that my book, The Shadowman, evoked very strong emotions in one reader. Stunned me, frankly. A multi-authored series is hard work but lovely as ever to hear some readers find the effort worthwhile.

I’ve been doing some relaxed editing with a view to releasing an older work, editing that’s turned mostly into rewriting. Sometimes it’s a shock to realise how much you’ve improved.

Stay happy and healthy!

Sharon x

Merry Christmas, Everyone

I planned to post a different video today, but can’t seem to find the one I want. This takes me back to one of the happiest times in my life, so love this or hate it, at this dreadful time when most everyone’s Christmas plans have been thrown into chaos, try to appreciate what you can. Call loved ones. Stay safe. Watch your favourite cheesy Christmas movie if you have one. Or ignore everything there is about Christmas, if that’s what you like. Most of all, try to find a little happiness in whatever you do and may you remain healthy.

Geode Girl Art

I rarely showcase or recommend something I’ve bought, but I’m blown away by the work created by Geode Girl, an artist living in London. She creates fabulous pieces inspired by nature using resin and crystals. This decorative and useful selection of art is more amazing in reality than photos can do justice.

I’m equally taken by her seascape pieces as the geodes, and in time hope to own a piece of both, though I simply could not resist opting for the black seascape tray.

Each item will be unique, as is a feature of the process. I’m delighted the way my ‘waves’ turned out.

Note: I waited patiently for several weeks for this made to order item, though to be fair, I explained I was in no hurry, but had I needed to wait longer I would say it’s worth doing so — these items take time to create and to cure between layers, so keep that in mind when ordering and allow the artist time to create what is surely a prized possession. But if you’re looking for a delightful personal treat or a unique gift, I struggle to imagine anyone who could be displeased with something from Geode Girl’s collection.

Visit: https://www.geodegirlart.com/

Update Nov 2020

Hi Everyone!

AT HOME:

A month in which I had a tooth out and because of various reasons tried Conscious Sedation, which, unfortunately, didn’t work for me. At least I now know. It’s also the month when I realised it’s been 20 years since we had to say goodbye to our beloved dog. She may be gone, but she’s never forgotten. Like everyone else in the UK, we’ve been in a second lockdown, although in some areas things are no different. Shops are heaving, so are markets… all of which, if they sell food, are allowed to open. The one thing I hate more than anything this year is food shopping. All the shops have their own rules, it’s been confusing, you get the shoppers that stare at a single shelf for what feels like half an hour, and others have no idea about keeping their distance. I’ve ordered a few goodies for Christmas this year to subject ourselves to the shops as little as possible.

FILM/TV:

A sci-fi horror called The Invisible Man, staring Elisabeth Moss, turned out to be interesting to watch. The 2hr film definitely flew by, as it makes the viewer question whether this woman trying to escape her abusive husband is losing her mind, or being stalked. Underwater was another surprise and possibly a bit of a treat for anyone who loves their Lovecraft and Cthulhu mythos. An added surprise was that Kristen Stewart carries herself well as the action hero in this underwater sci-fi disaster film. Motherless Brooklyn deserves a mention for Edward Norton’s performance, and the fact he also adapted Jonathan Lethem’s novel, and directed this story of a private detecting in a corrupt city. A pleasant thriller that didn’t drag along its 2hr 20 minutes.

Pleased to have at long last caught up with the last episode of Eureka. We used to tune into this sci-fi show on the SyFy channel… right until our Sky box melted several years ago. Came home one day to the smell of burning plastic… awful and a little frightening. As a glitch in Sky’s system kept insisting they couldn’t give us a box because we had one despite it being a melting lump of danger, we never renewed and so lost out on the last one and a half series. It’s taken some years, but I have to agree with what I’d heard — it’s one show that rounded off well, with a satisfying conclusion.

READING:

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 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.

Bird Box, Josh Malerman

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.

The Servants of Twilight, Dean Koontz

This chase thriller holds up to time, as readable today as when written, the fanaticism just as relevant. The bad guys walk the line of caricatures but somehow work, as does the vivid icy landscape they are all plunged into. The soul of the book is summed up in this perfect sentence: “There was evil … in mankind’s fatal attraction to easy, even if irrational, answers.”

Trudi Canavan

Priestess of the White

Book 1 of the Age of the Five

Epic Fantasy once used to be my favourite genre, and books like this remind me why; the author has a strong sense of world-building. She interweaves the various characters’ lives, societies and religions in a way that makes them wholly believable. And amid all this, there’s an interesting love story. I was particularly taken with the Dreamweaver, Leiard, haunted in a possibly life-threatening way by ‘linked memories’. I have Books 2 & 3 to look forward to and hope I enjoy these equally, although I don’t feel this series is as compelling as Canavan’s ‘The Black Magician Trilogy’.

WRITING:

I finished my ‘extremely rough’ draft of a horror novel. It’s a new venture for me, but something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, even if no one ever reads it. Naturally, I hope that won’t be the case, but it still needs a lot of work. Still, it feels great to have the framework completed. December will be a month where I write if/when/where I like, with a view to revamping some older works and producing new in 2021.

Stay happy and healthy!

Sharon x