Update Feb 2021

Hi Everyone!

AT HOME:
Following on from last month, we finished the dining room makeover, taking down the curtains, painting two end walls the same colour as the hall (a much better shade to go with the wallpaper), swapping three pieces of furniture around, and putting up a window scarf in place of the curtains. A weekend’s work that’s given us a completely new feel to the room, one which makes us more interested in using the area. Next we have plans for the garden. Alas, I’ve had a few bad days again, which meant I didn’t get as much done as I would have liked in the home or with writing. I also missed a week’s blogging.

As for lockdown, saw a news item referring to home schooling, showed someone doing 250 x 10 with a group of children on zoom, and they were writing numbers in boxes below the problem. What the hell for? You put a 0 on the end and get 2500. No need to write anything. No wonder the parents struggle to teach them anything. I’d want to throw these new-fangled ways out the window.

FILM/TV:
We finished watching Fortitude, the British horror psychological thriller television series I mentioned last time, which grew increasing bizarre and violent, though overall we must have enjoyed watching as we finished all three seasons. Currently, we’re ploughing through the latest Death in Paradise (recommend every season), and the current series of The Black List — been good but can’t help feeling it’s overstayed its welcome now. We also started watching Resident Alien, for which I’m a little biased as it stars Alan Tudyk who I love mostly from Firefly. It’s quirky and madcap enough to make us laugh. We also started Black Mirror. Never realised this is individual stories or we might have watched it a long time ago. As with all anthologies, no doubt we’ll love some tales more than others, but so far so great.

Best film seen recently was likely Mank. Gary Oldman’s appeared on The One Show talking about the film on Netflix, the story of the man who wrote Citizen Kane. We watched it the other day, and it’s extremely stylish in the way it’s filmed with a beautiful look in black and white, and was way more interesting than we expected it to be.

READING:
Voice of the Gods, Age of the Five trilogy, Trudi Canavan
An interesting book to complete the trilogy, which certainly deals with the clash of politics and religions. One that brings the tale of Auraya and Leiard to a satisfying and hopeful conclusion. Some have said there are no big surprises in this trilogy, and for anyone who understands story construction in some ways, that’s true; however, I found this trilogy a joy to read and expertly told. I also wish I could adopt one of the adorable creatures called a Veez. I loved all the characters, and this author’s skilful plot.

The Accidental Werewolf, Dakota Cassidy
A light, fun read, well-written for the genre. Although I wasn’t sure about the high-maintenance protagonist Marty, I was pleased to see her over-talkative, somewhat scatty personality develop over the course of the story. The council issue and Keegan’s relationship with them might have benefitted from fledging out a little more. Summer holiday entertainment.

Mr Mercedes, Stephen King
Though widely known for horror, I’ve always said King is more than a horror novelist. In this thriller we meet Bill Hodges, a retired detective who crosses paths once more with one of his incomplete cases. I grew to like this character and have a good deal of fondness for him. Like all of King’s work, I found the storytelling comfortable and the work character driven. I did not like the tense changes, or what I felt was a rather stereotypical or ‘comic book’ bad guy, but for all I know King did his research and psychoanalysed his perp, or ‘perk’ as anyone who reads the book with come to know him. Also found a few elements (one especially) predictable, and a few details overlooked by a supposedly trained detective. But characters, even the good ones, make mistakes. I’ll move on to the second book in this ‘trilogy’ of what appears to be independent stories featuring Hodges.

I started a fourth book, but I’ve not quite finished so will include that next month.

WRITING:
Alas, nothing to report. I’m still doing some editing. Also, some research. I’ve plans for later in the year, but health and other issues mean that’s still to come.

Stay happy and healthy!
Sharon x

Submission Guidelines

All publishers have them, and most are online nowadays, so make a note, pay attention, and follow the guide. The instructions will often explain not only how to present work but also what type of stories the publisher is looking for. This may be for general publication or a specific submission call, such as a magazine putting out a themed issue.

PAY ATTENTION. Seriously. Occasionally, writers have cause to moan about the publishing industry, but we can say equally the same in reverse. I’ve witnessed a publisher’s submission call receive hundreds of questions, the answers to which were in the call itself. Some publishers will display immense patience. Others, especially those inundated with submissions, will dismiss work from those individuals they view as acting less than professionally. Before the writer queries, best to make sure they’ve not provided the answer, so read the guide more than once.

Another good reason to read guidelines is it’s amazing how many writers waste their time and that of agents and publishers by submitting the wrong thing to the wrong market. I’m not talking about not *quite understanding* what an editor is looking for—sometimes this is hit and miss at best—but it’s pointless to send a romance title to a horror market or vice versa, and yet it continues to happen. Result: Binned. The writer may receive guidelines in reply or hear nothing.

Study the market. Make sure the right story goes to the right publication or as close as is possible so it has a genuine chance. Also buy and read at least one copy of any magazine or a book from a publisher when considering the market. Not only does the purchase help keep these markets going, it gives the writer an insight to what the publisher requires. Reading is really the only way to tell whether a work fits and whether the author even wishes to consider a specific publisher. Send out work randomly and it wastes everyone’s time.

Dragon #9

Today I thought I’d showcase another of my favourite dragons. Came across this in a shop in Tintagel, Cornwall, and just love the twisted body and the way the Dragon stands.

These photos were not taken in my current home, but the dragon looks especially good against the rug I had at the time. So well balanced.

You better watch out! And no, cough; definitely not one of my cheaper ones, but liable to stay with me, always.

Update January 2021

Hi Everyone!

AT HOME:

As it’s still lockdown and you’re not meant to go further than your immediate town, we’ve got exercise from walking round what are some rather bleak roads this time of year, and for far too short walks up on our meagre bit of common. We realised the other day there is one garden we can reach and use our RHS membership to only pay for one of us, but it’s not our favourite and particularly not this time of year. This weekend just gone was miserable with icy rain. We’ve decided to make the best of this continued lockdown by giving our dining room a slight makeover, which only comprises painting two walls, and moving some furniture around. Maybe I’ll tell you the exciting details next month. Yes, that’s sarcasm. We may appreciate the necessity of staying in, but it wears thin on those of us even obeying the rules with the best intentions.

I’ve also had a few days struggling with pain. One of those days when acupuncture needles start looking good, even though I’m not going right now because of the Covid situation, and because it seems a bit of a waste trying when I don’t need to go out as have no one to visit and no travelling allowed. I’ve felt like a bouncing ball these days, which when you have to live with pain is understandable. I’m thinking there are few life lessons greater than living with pain. Focuses you on what’s important. So far, doing a little better as we roll into February. Missing a couple of friends as I could so do with a good vent, and I know they could, too.

FILM/TV:

We got through season one of Fortitude, a British horror psychological thriller television series the first season of which first aired in January 2015. Set in a fictional Arctic Norwegian settlement of Fortitude, I found the first series often beautiful in terms of scenery, very watchable, well-plotted, an eco warning in the sub-plot, with my only criticism being too many characters seem to suffer from the terminable illness of TSTL (Too Stupid Too Live). On to season two next.

Been watching a lot of old films at the weekends, like westerns or thrillers. Just watched Once Upon a Time in the West. You can see where Tarantino picked up ideas from. I’m fairly sure he’s mentioned work like this in the past, but even if he hadn’t, it’s definitely the same vibe. Also, made me think of my aunt who loved a) Doug McClure (got a signed photo from him and an invitation to drop by his place if she was ever nearby; alas, she never had the chance), b) Charlton Heston, and c) Charles Bronson (who is in this film).

READING:

How to Stop Time, Matt Haig

Sometimes you come across books with emotional meaning and theme tightly woven into the narrative, and this is one of them. Time is the enemy. Time is our friend. Maybe we don’t need to be told that (I see some reviews that seem to find this preachy), but I can’t help thinking we do (need reminding) in this modern world where we waste so much of it, and Matt Haig reminds us of what’s important superbly. The historical parts are vivid and highlight the stupidity of what we deem to be so important now. And I felt there was so much more to Tom’s life and experiences that we can alas only glimpse for the purpose of the story. The only flaw for me is I would have liked to have seen more page time spent between Tom and his modern day love interest. The book lacked the depth of love needed to make Tom want to live; his love for his daughter felt more real and a greater motivation, so if you’re looking for a hidden love story, it’s only vaguely there. Still, this is a superb book.

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

I really wish I could love this ‘Groundhog Day’ reflections of a life. Alas, it took me close to 300 pages to care about Ursula in any deep way, possibly because this is the page mark where the reader has the privilege of the longest (so far in the book at this point) chapter of her life without a restart. This happened at least three times — moments where I became engrossed only to get jerked away. Admittedly, there are joys and delight amongst the pages, and I cannot fault the writing or research, although the style is rather distinct in a way that doesn’t particularly appeal to me. Neither do I fault the author’s reasons for writing this novel, as detailed in the author’s footnotes at the end of the book. This may be for anyone who wants to ‘experience’ a historical reflection of English country life and wartime, of which this gives a real flavour. But sadly for me I felt this was time lost, reading a story that seems rather pointless other than several ‘what if’ snippets of life with no conclusions. Odd, how a book can be both excellent yet unsatisfactory, but that’s the only way I can refer to this. I have another book by this author featuring a character from this book, but though I’ve tried, I’m not sure I will read it.

Last of the Wilds, Book Two Age of the Five, Trudi Canavan

The second book in a trilogy, which I prefer over the first. This book is tough to review without giving major plot points away. Where the first book appeared to deal with a direct story of good vs evil, the second book has more layers, complicating the plot in excellent ways, making the reader ask the same questions as many characters come to debate. I often reserve 5 out of 5 scores only for books I adore and cannot stand to part with, but this book escalates the tale in book 1 to a new and more satisfying level. Whereas when I finished Book 1, I mostly delved into the second book out of curiosity, I now need to read the last of the trilogy to learn the outcome. With one or two perfect twists, I’ve enjoyed this much more than I expected to. An excellent blend of religion, and politics, and the dangerous quality of blind faith.

Incubus, Joe Donnelly

The first book I’ve read by Joe Donnelly, but it won’t be my last. Though distasteful things happen to women in this book, without them the story wouldn’t work. One might call this the ultimate in evil child tales, but it passes beyond into true monster territory. For some, the book may feel too long, but the strength comes from the inexorable build. The power comes from the writing, the sustained sense of menace, which creeps under the skin and into the mind. A brilliant idea for the horror genre, expertly executed.

The Door to December, Dean Koontz

Re-read as part of a hoped-for book clearance, though often listed as a horror writer, Koontz is really a supernatural thriller author. I’ve heard some complain about many of his recent books (of which I’m behind on), but it’s too easy to forget some of his old works are superb. Whether you like his work, many are well-plotted, well-written, create tension with simple sentences, and get in more than enough character development. Those who know about story structure can see in which books it shines out. Alas, the surprise twist is terribly simple to work out, and the ending, after a long but absorbing journey, seems to happen too fast. Still worth reading.

WRITING:

Well, I just finished the edit/partial rewrite of what I wanted to complete in January and in time for the last weekend. I’ll shelve it a little while now, but I think it’s okay to republish. I know it’s a lot of work but I’ve learned so much and changed my writing so much it does me a disservice not to improve things where I can. I know that’s not much news for now, but I am picking things up.

Stay happy and healthy!

Sharon x

Reading List 2020 part 3

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 the subject of 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 to 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 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 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.

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…