Sunday, 2 March 2014

Five (or so) of the finest reads

A little late, but here goes. My favourite reads from 2013. I managed just 32 books last year, which is pants, as I try to average one a week. Anyway, my top five(ish) reads from last year, in alphabetical author order:

The Blade Itself - Joe Abercrombie
 A good friend of mine had been mithering me for a few years to read this, praising Abercrombie as the best fantasy novelist writing today. I've not read much fantasy over the last ten years, certainly nowhere near as much as I did in my teens and early twenties, when every other novel would be fantasy. Must have fantasised myself out of the genre. But I finally succumbed, and so glad I did. Book one of Abercrombie's The First Law trilogy, this is dark and bloody. And bloody well written too. On the dust jacket, the author says he was tired of the usual fantasy fare of quests/wizards/dragons and wanted to write 'fantasy with the edges left on'. And that he did. Three very different main characters come together over the course of the book, each flawed, displaying few of the traits we would normally associate with heroes. Book two - Before They Are Hanged - is in my to-read pile for 2014

The Shining/Joyland - Stephen King
The first of three cheats in the top five. Joyland, released last year, was touted as a pulp crime novel, but the crime is secondary. It's a beautifully-crafted coming of age story about Devin Jones, a student who takes a summer job at an amusement park, where a girl was murdered several years before in the haunted house. The second King book was The Shining, which I'd never read. In fact, I'd never read any of King's books from the 70s and 80s. Not sure why - horror stories bored me as a kid and teenager, probably because I'd gorged myself on horror movies (unknown to parents) as a young lad. But I knew that when I started making inroads into early King, The Shining would be where I started. There's not much left to say about it, other than it is a quite brilliant read. I'm still a little uneasy taking baths, particularly if there are any old women around... and right now I'm in the middle of the sequel, Doctor Sleep.

Blood Meridian/No Country for Old Men - Cormac McCarthy
I'm a latecomer to McCarthy, having first found The Road a few years back and I've been building up his back catalogue to read them in a short space of time. Last year it was these two books - and hell, if they aren't incredible. Very different, Meridian is an almost poetical blood-soaked meditation on man's fascination with violence, while No Country is a leaner, more streamlined novel, which the Coens converted into Oscar glory. Of all the characters I read last year, I think Judge Holden from Blood Meridian is the one most scorched into my memory. Wonderful stuff. This year's McCarthy books are Child of God and Outer Dark.

Shame the Devil - George Pelecanos
I'm close to catching up on Pelecanos's back catalogue and I find myself eeking out the books in order to make the experience last longer. Pelecanos writes about the underbelly of Washington DC and he is one of those authors whom I annoy the hell out of other readers by insisting they must be deranged if they've not tried him. Devil is the final book in Pelecanos's 'DC quartet', following on from The Big Blowdown, King Suckerman and The Sweet Forever, and it brings together two of his most enduring characters, Dimitri Karras and Nick Stefanos. It's a beautiful and haunting tale, as two killers return to the city three years after disappearing following a hit that went wrong, leaving a young boy dead and a cop wounded. I still find it hard to understand why Pelecanos isn't a household name around the world - this is a guy who has other crime authors such as Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane and Lee Child drooling.

Mortal Engines quartet - Philip Reeve
Yes, even more of a cheat then entries two and three - four steampunk books in one. I started the year with the first, Mortal Engines, and devoured the next three - Predator's Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain - in quick succession. Wonderful storytelling aimed at readers aged 12+, a post apocalyptic world of moving traction cities and airships, with war looming on every front. The books follow the adventures of Tom and Hester from teens to parents, and there's no let-up across the four books. A wonderfully imagined world, and apparently Peter Jackson has had the rights to the movies for some time. Let's hope that now he's got The Hobbit out of his system, he can bring a lumbering, caterpillar-tracked vision of London to life.