Reads of 2019

I usually look back at a year of reading at the start of another so here are my most notable reads of 2019. There’s quite a few so I’m splitting these into two blogs.

Teacher, Teacher! by Jack Sheffield is not normally my kind of book but throughout the year I read the series. Told perhaps with a little artistic license (it’s not possible for the narrator to know what others are thinking) this makes for a novel that feels part storytelling and part memoir. As sad at times as it is humorous in others. I want to say this series makes for a pleasant read though I don’t think it does the book justice. For those who like books a little biographical in nature, perhaps, this has a much warmer tone of fiction. Charming and nostalgic.

Wolf Winter, Cecilia Ekback: A Swedish mystery set in 1717, this was a surprising read, skilfully accomplished. This is a book more suited to adults, although the protagonist seems to be Frederika, a young girl which is surprising as the general rule for fiction is the age of the main character determines the reading age. I loved the historical atmosphere, the remoteness and added complications of the environment. There were enough twists and possibilities to keep the reader guessing, with the setting as much a character as any of the people.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury: Hard to believe I’ve never read this classic before. The book opens to make the reader question what he or she is reading. It has a crazed, abstract poetry to it. Gradually, it dawns the story is about much more than is seemingly on the page, questioning the meaning of books, the attention span of society, of works  shortened, condensed into snippets, even of politics, censorship and, ultimately, war. The book feels timeless yet never more timely than now, speaking of people turning from books to technology. This story is visionary. Clarisse McClellan: ‘She didn’t want to know how a thing was done but why.’ Fantastic line. Even better ones: ‘If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.’ This on a page well worth reading alone. A subliminal work perhaps, certainly supreme. Some say works of fiction aren’t real but no fictional work can get more real than this.

Icebound, Dean Koontz: Another re-read for me that proved to be fun. This is the only real attempt Koontz says he made at a traditional thriller and he did a wonderful job. The factual details are enough to be engaging without boring and there’s a real sense of a ticking bomb. While there may be better thrillers on the market at the time Koontz wrote this he did a job good enough to translate to film although the ability to put this on screen likely didn’t exist to do the story justice. One particular mention, I love it when I’m reading and come across a sentence that expresses a perfect sentiment and in Icebound there is one: Politics was an illusion of service that cloaked the corruption of power.

The Searching Dead, Ramsey Campbell: First in a trilogy, this book has more of a slower pace than many modern day novels plus the protagonist is a teenager—unusual in a horror story though this may read more supernatural than horror. It’s certainly not horrific, more creepy with touches of sadness — the older generations do not fair well, from Mrs Norris missing her deceased husband, to Mr Noble’s father and his dark memories of war. While I would have liked to discover more about the strange haunting presences (can’t say more without giving too much away), this creates the foundation for a hoped-for deeper story. The setting makes for a nostalgic read, both good and bad, and I particularly felt the helplessness of being young and having no one believe or even listen to fears unfounded or otherwise.

Born to the Dark, Ramsey Campbell: In the best sense this book is an exercise in frustration, carrying on the story begun in The Searching Dead but moving several years ahead when the protagonist is now an adult encountering the strange Christian Noble again. The threat, now largely aimed at his son, Dom cannot shake off the vexation of having no one believe him, least of all his wife. With more insight to the great overall peril, a deeper mystery dragging Dom and his family and his friends into an impossible darkness…I hope the third book in this trilogy has the payoff the series deserves.

The Way of the Worm, Ramsey Campbell: First, I have to draw attention to the cover on this one. The more one delves into the story the more I realised how well suited the cover design is. The eyes grew creepier the more I progressed with the plot. Where the first of this trilogy portrayed the protagonist, Dominic Sheldrake, as a teenage, the second an adult, the third instalment enters his twilight years, which reflects the semidarkness that has plagued his life. His son is now an adult, but this only exacerbates both Dominic’s fears and the frustration the reader shares. The result convenes on a colossal scale and, if any parts of the tale come across as vague, or dreamlike, or illusory this fits with the tale we’ve followed, the half-truths and semi-falsehoods Dominic continues to battle. This reads as a modern Lovecraftian tale of a warped universe and fragile dimensions of tenuous existence. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the disquieting subtle horror.

The Silence, Tim Lebbon: An excellent apocalyptic thriller, well plotted and disturbing, tugging the heartstrings in all the right places. Simple writing which does nothing to reduce the tension but makes this accessible for most ages from young adult to adult in part because the story is told by two main protagonists, father and daughter. As a side note the film based on the book does not do the novel justice.

The Terror, Dan Simmons: I wish I could say I love this book. The amount of work and research that’s gone into this tome deserves well-received recognition. Unfortunately, I can only claim to like it. This has much to do with the book’s branding. If looking for a supernatural horror in the wilderness, this isn’t it. The reviews on the book refer to details such as a ‘massive combination of history and supernatural horror’ and a ‘tour de force’. Both are right but it underwrites the supernatural element while it overdoes the history part.

The most irritating plot point for me was the obvious device of having someone walk into a clear trap. I can’t say more without a spoiler but this frustrating point comes late in the book. I found some of the most interesting things in the book to be what the Esquimaux woman, Lady Silence, does. The woman who understands how to survive on the ice makes the efforts of the ships’ crews appear naïve and inept.

The book IS a masterpiece and yet suffers from overwriting more often than not. I really didn’t need to know so many names, or reminding of them, or a full list of men who died on the way no matter how much they took up the Captain’s thoughts. Fair editing could likely trim a good couple of hundred pages. If looking to read an epic tale of man’s survival in an Arctic wilderness, then this book is excellent. If seeking a shiver of supernatural terror, this may not be the book, for the reveal, though wonderfully strange, lacked some vital element to make it scary or compelling. The most horrifying aspect for me was the scurvy. I’d be interested in watching the series, though.

The Sorrow King, Andersen Prunty: Essentially, the supernatural cause of several teenage suicides, which is obvious from the outset, this story could have been better written and likely more exciting if told with more show rather than tell. However, there’s something persuasive about the narrative and the concept is interesting. I purchased the e-book because print wasn’t available.

The Living, Isaac Marion: The last in the Warm Bodies trilogy, a far superior Zombie novel that I would have loved to purchase in print to add to the two titles I already own. Alas, postage to the UK and import duties prohibited this.

My favourite in the series is and shall always remain the first book, a title which perhaps says enough, but this takes the exploration further, giving us a beautiful, painful, and sad view of the world. These books are about so much more than a horde of walking dead — it’s about life, love, relationships, politics, society, racism, religion to name the most obvious, though I’m certain that to each the books will have something different to say. With each title the books grew darker in context. At times the writing felt poetic, at others surreal, but always undoubtedly philosophical, which perhaps explains why the author has had to self-publish the third title. This is the most literary use of the zombie genre I’ve stumbled across, one that would be hard to exceed, and therefore publishers may have feared its lack of potentially purely commercial value.

I won’t deny moments where the story lost its grip on me, perhaps because each of the books has a decidedly different feel and the tone of the third was different to what I expected, but the way the author writes, the world he’s created, the intellectual significance behind the books are too eloquent to ignore. Though I enjoyed the last book the least, and it perhaps has some flaws, it completes an exceptional story arc, strong enough to be keepers for me.

The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion: When I started this my first thought was OMG (the protagonist) is Sheldon (Big Bang Theory) but while it’s difficult for fans of the show not to see the inevitable similarities, it didn’t (as some people have pointed out) put me off reading but added another layer of amusement to the read. There’s a love story here with a difference. Intelligent, witty, at times throwing a light on human interaction in a way standard romances might not, this book is often joyful to read. I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would though the ending seemed a little rushed, perhaps explained because the book has sequels. I kind of prefer this as a standalone read but, if not for my to-be-read mountain, I might consider perusing the other titles.

Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: A reread of a classic (while awaiting the DVD release so I can see Amazon’s adaptation starring David Tennant and Michael Sheen) by two outstanding authors who are also my favourite writers. This story displays both their talents, creating a meld of the sublime and ridiculous in all the right ways. Any fan of Douglas Adams would do well to pick up this story. The world would be a poorer place without this collaboration. Pure magic.