Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

my five favourite books of 2016

Posted by on December 28th, 2016

A quick bit of housekeeping to begin with. I’ve posted very little this year, and can’t see myself posting all that regularly in future, so I suppose I finally have to face facts. This isn’t really a blog anymore. So I’ve renamed this page as “news and updates”, and I’ll see how that works in 2017.

(Having done this, maybe I’ll find myself wanting to post several times a week and start treating it as a blog again – but somehow I doubt it. For better or worse, blogs increasingly feel outdated, and I’m far more active on the standard social media accounts these days. I’ll most likely keep this bit of my website for what it now says on the tin.)

But! I do want to post about my five favourite books of the year. As usual – and despite my best intentions – I haven’t read as much as I would have liked to. And as usual – once again – I’m determined to do much better next year. I probably won’t. It does seem strange to me, the reading lull that always occurs in the middle of each year, but maybe that’s just my nature, and around 25 novels a year is my limit.

Regardless, these were my five favourite books of 2016. They’re in no particular order, and there’s the standard caveat that my favourites do not necessarily represent what I thought was strictly best. And as always, I could – and probably would – have picked a different five on a different day. Trust me: everything I read this year has much to recommend it from my point of view, not least because I simply abandoned lots of books that aren’t on that list (and there was nothing wrong with them either). But these five stand out for me, at least today, and I recommend them to you highly. If you like these sorts of books then I think these are the sorts of book you will like.

 

The Poison Artist, by Jonathan Moore

We meet toxicologist Dr Caleb Maddox – an expert in pain – just after a violent breakup with his girlfriend that has left him bleeding from his forehead. On the boozy, absinthe-fulled night out that follows, Maddox encounters a mysterious woman and becomes obsessed with tracking her through the late-night bars and secret clubs of a misty, rain-drenched San Francisco. At the same time, bodies are being pulled out of the bay, each bearing marks of torture by poison. The Poison Artist is a beautifully-written, woozily erotic nightmare of a book, full of quiet horrors, evocative settings and a mounting sense of outright dread. By the time the pieces have come together at the end, you’re not sure whether you want to drink absinthe or if you might already have.

 

The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts

While many SF novels deal in physics, Roberts’s latest novel is an adventure that hinges more on metaphysics. It effectively begins with a pun – two scientists at an Antarctic research station bang heads and bicker about Immanuel Kant’s theory of ‘the thing in itself’ and then experience what may be an alien encounter – before splitting into strands. Alternate chapters describe the fallout from that initial event, while flashbacks and flashforwards give us glimpses into a distant past and faraway future all influenced by the central idea: that Kant’s theory is right, and that access to the real world beneath our perceptions and measurements – the thing itself; A/K or “Applied Kant” – has astonishing and dangerous consequences. The central strand at times feels Bond-like and humorous, at others dense with debate, and – occasionally – horrifying. The other sections are written in individual styles, and feel like self-contained short stories that gradually bind the book together. All told, it’s an incredibly ambitious novel – demanding; intelligent; full of ideas and arguments – and it concludes with a quiet coda that’s easily one of the loveliest passages of writing I’ve read this year.

 

A Head Full Of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay

A superb, multi-layered psychological horror story about possession. The Barrett family suffers difficulties when one of their daughters, Marjorie, begins to show escalating signs of mental disorder. Finding no medical solutions, they unwisely invite both an exorcist and a reality television crew into their home. Fifteen years later, their other daughter, Merry, recounts her own memories of the events that took place. The horrors here build slowly – the story helped along by Merry’s compelling and appealing narration – before ending with one of the cruellest twists I can remember in recent years. Throughout, the whole novel is slyly self-aware: there are knowing references to the standard tropes of the genre, easter eggs galore, and sections where the book even takes time to dissect not only aspects of the story that have been presented to you but the way they have been. Events remain ambiguous and open to interpretation. And yet none of that stops the book gathering a chilly, terrifying pace, before that ending delivers an unforgettable final shiver.

 

Watch Her Disappear, by Eva Dolan

While many crime writers choose to locate their series characters in the murder squad or some other ‘extreme crime’ unit, to give them gritty and viscerally exciting investigations to undertake, Dolan chooses a quieter approach: her novels are set in the Hate Crimes unit in Peterborough. The setting allows her not only to deliver well-structured and grounded crime novels with superbly-realised characters, but also to explore timely and important social issues. It’s a thing she does with real sensitivity. Watch Her Disappear, about the murder of a trans woman, is not only smart, compassionate, beautifully written and completely compelling, it also takes its characters and subject matter into areas you wouldn’t necessarily expect. I was lucky enough to get an ARC, and this is a highly recommended read for when it’s released next year.

 

Slow Horses, by Mick Herron

Slow Horses is set in Slough House, a departmental dumping ground for various fuck-ups from MI5, ruled over by the odious Jackson Lamb. Lamb is a wonderful creation: obnoxious, astonishingly ill-mannered, and described as looking like Timothy Spall gone to seed – but also more than capable, and loyal to his own (admittedly well-hidden) moral compass that he’ll “never leave a joe in the lurch”. The other characters, mostly bitter and hating each other, are equally well-drawn and compelling. When a boy is abducted, his beheading scheduled to appear live on the internet, the slow horses end up involved. This is an incredibly funny book – cynical and twisted – but also a serious one with genuine heart. Not to mention the fact that it’s beautifully written with twists and turns galore. I’m not particularly a fan of spy thrillers – or series characters, when it comes to it – but the second I finished Slow Horses, I went straight to the bookshop and bought the next two Jackson Lamb books. I could easily have included either of them (Real Tigers especially) on this list instead, but figured I’d start at the beginning.

my five favourite books of 2015

Posted by on January 3rd, 2016

It has – once again – been a lacklustre year for me in terms of reading: 22 books read in 2015 in total, which is a much smaller number than I would like. So I feel a little … guilty, almost, in selecting a top five. It doesn’t feel earned. I’m going to anyway, obviously, but I’ll be having some stern words with myself and attempting to correct this in the year ahead.

In the meantime, these were my five favourite books of 2015. They’re in no particular order, and they’re presented with the usual caveat that my favourites do not necessarily overlap perfectly with what I thought was best. Best is a trickier term to pin down; favourites is considerably easier. But even then, it was difficult to choose. There are several other books that could easily have made this list.

Anyway.

Here we are…

The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August, by Claire North

Harry August is born in the early 1900s in difficult circumstances. He lives a relatively undistinguished life until his first death in 1989. At that point, he is born again – into the exact same circumstances, and with the full knowledge of the life he led before. That second life understandably does not go well, but as his lives pass, he makes contact with the supportive Cronus Club, and realises he is a ‘kalachakra’: one of many individuals who relive their lives thousands of times over without forgetting the previous ones. Harry learns to explore and exploit this ability until, at the end of his eleventh life, he receives a message from a little girl about the state of the future.

There are almost too many joys to be found in this novel. It is beautifully written, for one, but the real fun is in the exploration: the way it takes a single, relatively simple idea and runs with it, following every aspect of the concept to its natural limits. And so – of course – it is possible for ideas and messages to be passed back and forth through time over eons, either as warnings or as jokes. It feels obvious and natural that secret clubs and communities of such individuals will evolve, that rules will be established and that shortcuts and helplines will be created. It’s the ultimate secret society, and the idea is fleshed out and made real. So it’s the world, filled to its edges, that enchanted me here, even more so than the plot (which is rewarding and clever) and the depth of character (which is great). I was trying to think why I responded so positively to it all, and I realised I can give it the highest compliment: it reminded me of reading The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones for the first time as a teenager. That was the first time I was this transfixed by a world so simultaneously neverending and wonderful and sad and moving. A fantastic book.

The Way Inn, by Will Wiles

Neil Double is a professional conference attendee. He’s happy to be paid to replace you at all those boring, anonymous business conferences you can’t be bothered to go to but your work says that you should. He loves all the badges and tote bags and random people. And most of all, he loves The Way Inn: the chain of cheap, identikit hotels that make him feel at home (or at least in exactly the same place) wherever he might be in the world. But on his latest assignment – at a conference for conference organisers – he meets a strange woman in the hotel, and follows her into the increasingly surreal netherworld that lies below the surface of the Way Inn chain.

What starts off as a wonderfully funny satire on the culture in question (anybody who’s attended a conference or stayed in a similar hotel will laugh frequently, generally in painful recognition) descends quickly into a kind of (still very funny) Lovecraftian horror. This book puts the ‘psycho’ into ‘psychogeography’. An awful description, I know – but really, not far off. From the moment Double meets the mysterious woman, who is trying to photograph all the abstract art in the various hotels and find meaningful patterns in them, you know you’re in safe hands, and the feeling never falters. Filled with great one-liners and set-pieces, and ultimately real feeling, it’s a pitch perfect novel. Like Harry August above, The Way Inn stretches and explores its crazy conceit to its limits, while still managing a very human landing.

The Death House, by Sarah Pinborough

The Death House has hit a fair number of ‘Best of 2015’ lists – and for good reason – but in many cases, the genre of the book has been touched on. Is it SF, for example? Or perhaps horror? Is it YA? What exactly is it? But Pinborough is a prolific writer who has spent years flitting successfully between many different genres, and who now seems to have found her feet combining aspects of whichever ones she wants into beautifully crafted stories that defy genre expectations and simply work on their own terms. So the truth is that this is just a Sarah Pinborough novel.

It’s a futuristic setting: the ‘Death House’ is a hospital-cum-boarding-school to which children who have been identified as defective in some way are taken by force. When they show signs of illness, they are taken to the Sanitorium, from which they never return. The main characters are Toby, a teenage boy, and Clara, the teenage girl whose arrival transforms his world. But there are many others. The relationships are skillfully drawn: none of these teenagers are heroic, as such, and many of the expected confrontations play out in ways you wouldn’t expect.

Obviously, the Death House is a metaphor for life itself – we’re all stuck with each other; we’re all about to die at any time – and as the tagline suggests: “Everybody dies. It’s how you choose to live that counts.” There are no happy endings in life; there are just happy, if transient, presents. And just as the novel explores the cruelty and uncertainty of the situation, it also conjures up several moving and beautiful moments that reinforce that point.

Pretty Is, by Maggie Mitchell

I wrote about this for The Murder Room:

“Abducted children are a long-standing trope in crime fiction, and it’s easy to understand why: a missing child immediately creates urgency and tension and a mystery to be solved, along with intense emotional engagement. The trope seems very popular right now, but if Pretty Is – the excellent debut novel by Maggie Mitchell – sounds at first like it will be ploughing familiar territory, it swiftly becomes clear that it’s working much more fertile and interesting ground…”

Read my full thoughts here.

Viral, by Helen FitzGerald

This is the third year that one of Helen FitzGerald’s books has appeared on my list of favourites, and yet the population at large still somehow refuses to give her the huge sales figures her work deserves. Go figure. But perhaps that will change in February, when Viral is released, because from its attention-grabbing first line, through a story drawn straight from the headlines, it’s a novel that plays to all of FitzGerald’s strengths, and which is engaging and charming to the very end. (More of which in a moment).

Su-Jin is a strait-laced seventeen year old Korean girl, adopted as an infant by the Oliphant-Brotheridge family. On a holiday to Magaluf with her infinitely more experienced sister, Leah, and her friends, Su-Jin gets drunk and is filmed performing a sex act on a number of men in a nightclub. The video goes viral. Su-Jin is villified by the media and her life is gradually destroyed. As her mother, Ruth – a respected court judge – seeks justice here, Su-Jin goes into hiding from the hounding press attention abroad, and then on the run.

The anger here, at least to start with, is palpable. We’ve all seen similar online stories be appropriated by the media, with the attention and blame generally focused on the drunk women in question rather than the men participating or the people filming. Here, FitzGerald tells the story from the other side (and indeed, the right side). But that’s really just the starting point for a tale of a young woman learning to reject various pressures to conform to expectations, whether social or familial, and instead using a moment of personal trauma as a springboard to leap out into the world and form her own identity on her own terms. Stylishly written, this is an incredibly funny novel, and ultimately a very touching one. That first sentence is certainly memorable – I’ll leave it to you to discover it – but it’s a testament to the strengths of the story in between that the last sentence, beautifully judged, is the one that will stay with you.

my 5 favourite books of 2014

Posted by on December 27th, 2014

I didn’t read as much as I wanted to this year, and once again, that’s something I’m determined to rectify next year. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why I couldn’t average out reading at least one book a week, and yet for some reason I never manage it – the second half of this year has been fairly intensive in terms of writing, but that’s really no excuse. Reading is important. So my aim for 2015 is to read at least one book a week, and watch at least one film, but I expect I’ll be making much the same promise in 12 months, just as I probably did 12 months ago.

Anyway – here are my five favourite books this year, in the order I read them.

The Violent Century, by Lavie Tidhar

violentcentury(I wrote this for The Murder Room website recently. You can read it here, and see the links to other authors’ choices, and I’m just reproducing the text below).

I’ve seen it described a number of times as being like a John le Carre novel with superheroes, and while that’s a fair description, it’s also an inadequate one, which points to how hard this brilliant book is to summarise.

The story posits that in the early 1930s, a German scientist named Vomacht performs an experiment that unleashes a quantum wave of possibility on the world’s population. Most people are unchanged, but some gain superpowers. While they do not age, they can be killed like anyone else, and the novel follows several of them from the events of World War 2 to the conflicts of the present day. That account takes us to many important places: Minsk, Leningrad, Auschwitz, Romania, Berlin, Laos, Afghanistan, New York in September 2011. The whole time, the overarching present day story builds to a conclusion that may or may not tie everything together.

What makes a hero? It’s a question the book asks on more than one occasion, and to which it provides no easy answers. The alternative history described in The Violent Century is all but indistinguishable from our own. The same wars and events occur, with the superheroes on each side of the various conflicts effectively cancelling each other out. Late on in the book, one of the main heroes encounters Osama bin Laden, who stares through him “as if he’s not there”. For all his powers manage to change, he might as well not be.

Regardless of the title, The Violent Century does focus primarily on World War 2, the implication being that it’s the conflict that acted as its own Vomacht wave on the 20th Century, the repercussions spreading out, changing many people, and feeding inexorably into the wars that followed in the years afterwards. But the book is much more than a study of the cause and effect of conflict. The superheroes don’t age externally, but they do inside, and The Violent Century is ultimately a love story, not between two people (although there is that, and more besides) but between a man and an ideal. It’s a story about a man living through the absolute worst humanity has to offer, and still clinging on to a belief in love and innocence.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

weareallI’m such a lazy reader that it always surprises – and secretly pleases – me when I’ve read and enjoyed something that ends up on the Booker short list. But We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves arrived on a wave of ‘can you guess the twist on p77?’ hype, and I’m a sucker for a good twist, so I read it immediately. The twist itself is unnecessary and somewhat forced, a fact acknowledged by the narrator, but by then I was so entranced by her engaging and unusual voice that I didn’t care. And anyway, I had – of course – spoiled it for myself long before I started. Which didn’t matter a jot, as there is far more to the story than that.

The book’s been so successful that it hardly seems worth explaining what it’s about, but I found it a funny, sad, touching exploration of a quirky family – or rather, a normal family in which the quirks all families have are given clear and overt manifestations. Okay, there’s certainly an element of manipulation to the whole thing (at times, I was a little too aware of my levers being pulled, my buttons being pushed), and it’s a book with a very unambiguous viewpoint (certain factions of the animal liberation movement come off as slightly cuddlier than in reality, for example), but these are churlish complaints. It packs a wallop, this book. I laughed, I cried, I pressed it onto others. I liked it a lot.

With A Zero At Its Heart, by Charles Lambert

azeroI have a friend who did Fine Art at university. At the time, I found him horribly pretentious, although with hindsight that’s unfair. I did Philosophy, after all; our arguments were presumably insufferable. So: sorry, Ben. A few years afterwards, he showed me some paintings he was working on: various triptychs, all the canvases exactly the same small shape. I assumed there would be some piffly, high-minded reason why he had chosen the same size canvases in sets of three – form mirroring content, or whatever – but I asked, and he told me there wasn’t. He just had so many other things to think about for the compositions that setting the structure in advance gave him a point to start from. I’ve mentioned this little quasi-anecdote before in interviews, because I think there’s an important grain of truth in it: that perhaps paradoxically, by setting yourself strict boundaries, you can often free yourself up, or at least force yourself to be creative in ways you might not otherwise have considered.

But I digress (albeit only slightly). With A Zero At Its Heart is a short, and I believe autobiographical, novel arranged into 24 different sections, each devoted to a particular theme – Death, Language, Sex, Money, and so on. Every section contains 10 passages, all of which are 120 words long. (There is also a brief coda). Structurally, it would seem difficult to give yourself more in the way of constraints than that, and I imagine that me-at-university would have found the whole idea horribly pretentious and quickly put it back on the shelf. Me-now, however, thought it was brilliant. It’s a lovely book, in fact: moving and intelligent and exceedingly well-written. The short passages are obviously very more-ish, but the prose is so delicious, with so much detail packed and folded into the sentences, so much meaning between the lines, that it’s preferable to linger. The narrative flits around, leaving the reader to piece together (or not) the scrambled fragments of various experiences, and the image of a life gradually reveals itself. Something about it mirrors the way it feels we look back on the events of our lives: not in chronological order, but darting here and there, making connections between the disparate things that are important to us and finding meaning there. The way we observe things around us too: bits and pieces; a jigsaw of experience. “Consciousness is a cut-up; life is a cut-up,” as Burroughs observed, he says pretentiously. I can see myself revisiting this book – or just individual pieces from it – over and over again.

The Exit, by Helen FitzGerald

theexitA book that comes festooned with many blurbs, one of which is from me, claiming that if there were any justice in the world, FitzGerald’s previous novel, The Cry, would be a Gone Girl moment for her. It wasn’t, of course, and it strikes me now as a bit of a stupid thing to have said: that kind of lightning strike is down to so many imponderables in addition to quality. I know this. And yet here we are, a year later, and I’m tempted just to repeat myself.

The Exit is another example of what FitzGerald does really, really well, which is to use a crime of sorts as a springboard for exploring the minds of her characters. If you believed the back cover, The Cry was about what had happened to a missing baby – except the reader was in on the secret from the start, and the book was really about the worlds and psychological defences of the various characters being picked slowly apart and watching them adjust, or not, to the unfolding circumstances. The Exit has a more obvious crime and mystery element – possible nefarious deeds going on at a care home – but if anything, the crime here is even less central to the story. Instead, for most of the journey, we’re taken into the minds of two main characters: Rose, an 82-year-old children’s author suffering from dementia, who frequently regresses to a traumatic episode from her childhood, and Catherine, a pretty, amiable and slightly vacuous 23-year-old, forced into work at the end-of-life care home in which Rose is a resident. Initially far more concerned with her social media status and escaping on holiday than the small number of patients under her supervision, Catherine slowly establishes a bond with Rose, and then begins to investigate the older woman’s claims of potential wrong-doing at the home.

FitzGerald brings a real authenticity to both women’s voices: Catherine and Rose are thoroughly believable characters – fallible and prickly, likeable and funny – and it’s a pleasure to see the younger character change as she’s forced to confront a number of very grown up situations throughout the book. It’s a progression, a character arc, that feels natural and unforced and, because we like Catherine a great deal, especially welcome. And I don’t want to downplay the crime element, by the way – The Exit goes to some very dark places indeed. But like The Cry before it, it’s also powerful and moving – almost unbearably so in places (although it never descends into anything cloying; there is just the right amount of cynicism and grit mixed in with the sentiment here, and every single bit rings true) – and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. I had a minor quibble with the ending: for perhaps the first time ever in a novel, I wanted less ambiguity, which is a measure of the affection I came to have for the characters. But put very simply, this is a superb book. If there’s any justice in the world, etc etc … well, let’s just say that if there’s any justice, you’ll buy it when it comes out in February, and leave it at that.

Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel

station11Survival is insufficient, a quote from Star Trek: Voyager, is written on the side of one of the carriages of the Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians touring a post-apocalyptic landscape, staging productions of Shakespeare in the ramshackle communities they pass through. The setting is Year Twenty – which is the number of years since a virulent strain of flu wiped out 99% of the population, leaving the survivors with none of the trappings of civilisation we take for granted (useless iPods, passports and other items are displayed in a makeshift museum that forms a destination for some of the characters). But that description is not strictly true, as although the novel begins at Year Zero, the moment of the flu outbreak, the narrative moves back and forwards through time, and a substantial amount takes place before the disaster strikes. The story in Year Twenty isn’t satisfying for what happens, as such (it’s fine, but the events themselves would barely fill a single episode of some standard dystopian drama), so much as for how it ties the rich, decades-spanning strands and themes of the book together.

The central figure is Arthur Leander, a famous actor, who dies of a heart attack on stage during a performance of King Lear. Days later, most of the audience will be dead too. Along with Arthur, we follow various characters his life has touched in some way, both before and after the apocalypse. Eventually, connections emerge. Some are not hard to guess, some seem slightly contrived, and yet despite that, and despite the furniture of the future world being somewhat familiar – but then, how could it not be by now? – the novel as a whole still feels fresh, surprising and remarkable. The writing is gorgeous. There are moments of real beauty here, internal and external, and the characters are vividly rendered – something which can also be said of the apocalyptic landscape itself. It always seems horribly credible but strangely hopeful: a dystopia populated more by carefully, nervously caring human beings than marauding monsters, people who aren’t simply surviving. I was trying to think what these sections reminded me of, and eventually I figured it out: immersing myself in the world of Fallout for the first time, encountering all those abandoned villages with their scavenged houses, nobody shooting at you, while oddly-beautiful old-timey music played in the background. You might think I could offer higher praise than that comparison, but you would be wrong. I loved this book.

The Deadly Percheron, the 1946 noir novel by John Franklin Bardin, has what can only be described as an audacious beginning. The first person protagonist – Dr George Matthews, a psychiatrist – receives his last client of the day, a young man named Jacob Blunt, who believes that a number of leprechauns are paying him to perform bizarre and trivial tasks: give away money; whistle in public; wear very specific flowers in his hair; and so on. Matthews decides Jacob is most likely delusional, but accompanies him to a bar that evening, where the pair meet one of the leprechauns, who appears to confirm Blunt’s story, and gives him a new task: give away a horse – the percheron of the title – to a famous actress. The next morning, that actress has been murdered, and Jacob Blunt has been arrested at the scene, in possession of a horse. After some discussion, Blunt is released into George Matthews’s custody – except the man who comes up from the cells is not the man Matthews met the day before…

… and there you are. You’re already sold on that, or else you aren’t. Reading the story is a little like taking a seat on an aeroplane, which ascends into the clouds in a way that suggests it won’t ever be able to land in a satisfactory manner. As the book progresses, up and up that narrative plane keeps going. You continue reading, confident that this is a book – it was published; it is renowned, however quietly – and so the narrative must eventually land. And yet up and up you seem to keep going.

Actually, once that astonishing opening is out of the way, a substantial portion of the book hinges on amnesia. Our narrator, George, loses his identity and, according to the calendar, nearly a year of his life. These sections are nicely written (and far more vividly so than his previous everyday existence). But amnesia it is, and however realistically it is rendered, there’s still the sneaking suspicion that the revelations as his memory gradually returns are more at the narrative’s convenience than that of realistic psychology. The story of those missing months is fairly straightforward, but amnesia turns it into plot. I was reminded of L Ron Hubbard’s Fear, in which the amnesiac main character receives the warning: “If you find your hat you’ll find your four hours. If you find your four hours then you will die.”. Tantalising, but it runs the risk of suggesting to the reader that the story has already happened, and that what’s happening now is the author withholding it to maximise drama. Regardless, as dramatic and bizarre as those clouds might look, the story still has to land.

In terms of that cumbersome metaphor, The Deadly Percheron does land – although the last quarter might be described as a series of sudden, slightly jolting drops. Perhaps it would be difficult for it to be otherwise. But it works overall, and the whole is clearly both lovingly and carefully written. Everything is coherent and makes sense; I mean, it’s a good book. And I suppose the plots of many crime novels are superficially convoluted, unlikely, and equally ridiculous at heart. Perhaps there’s a lesson there. Bardin, at least, has a horse outside.

my favourite books of 2013

Posted by on December 16th, 2013

At the beginning of the year, I was aiming to read more in 2013 than I did in 2012. As usual, my good intentions amounted to nothing. I went through stages when I was reading a lot, but also dry spells when I barely got through anything, and the end result was much the same as last year. Leaving aside the small handful of books I abandoned, and also non-fiction, I read 29 books this year. There’s a nice display of all the covers here. It will actually end up being 30, assuming I finish the book I’m reading now before the new year, but I’ll just sneakily include that in the list for 2014 to give myself a head start. Cheating, of course. But it’s hardly life or death.

Anyway, my first thought was that I’d pick my 5 favourite books from that selection. My second thought was holy shit, how am I going to pick my 5 favourite books from that selection? Because in truth, that’s a pretty good selection of books. If I were using a 5 star system, there’s nothing there I’d rank below a 3; and certainly, there are more than 5 books I want to mention. But from a meagre total of 29, 5 feels like the most I can get away with, although I might do a few honourable mentions at the end just to have my cake and eat it.

So with a heavy heart, and without further ado, here are my five favourite books of the year. Actually, just a little further ado, as these are my favourite books of the year – the ones I’ve enjoyed reading most – not necessarily the ones I consider the best. Is there a difference? Yes, there is. They’re also, with the exception of #1, in the order I read them rather than ranked. Oh, and they’re also books I’ve read this year, not necessarily books that were published this year. Which brings us nicely to…

 

5. A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

amonstercallsThis is the story of a young boy, Conor, struggling to deal with the heavy emotional and physical burdens of his mother’s terminal illness. One night, as the title says, a monster calls on Conor – an astonishing, primal tree-like creature that comes to his window and shakes the house. Refreshingly, Conor – a realistically difficult and therefore extremely likeable character – isn’t particularly frightened of the monster. Why would he be in the circumstances? But the monster promises to return and tell him three stories, and does. In between those tales, we see Conor’s home and school lives becoming harder and more complicated. It is obvious, to an extent, what we are heading towards, but the power of the novel comes not simply from the journey but the fact we don’t end up quite where we might be expecting – that the truth Conor ultimately has to face and accept is in some ways much harsher than bereavement, and all the more human for it. A Monster Calls is a beautifully-written and extraordinarily moving book. There are no prizes just for making a reader cry, of course, but Ness’s novel eschews cheap manipulation in favour of emotion that may well be raw and painful, but which always feels insightful, true, genuine. This is a very, very special book indeed.

 

4. Poppet, by Mo Hayder

poppetIt occurred to me earlier on that one of the (many) interesting aspects of Hayder’s series of procedurals involving DI Jack Caffery is that, at least on a grand scale, the reader is ahead of the main character. After taking a break from Caffery following The Treatment, and then returning to him a few books later in Ritual, Hayder has spun gold from Caffery’s search to discover what happened to his brother, abducted when they were both children. But if you’ve read The Treatment, you know – and in fact, that novel ends on such a powerfully bittersweet note, it’s easy to imagine the story was only ever conceived as spanning those first two books. I get comments from my agent if the reader is ahead of the main character for more than half a chapter, and yet here we are, four more books into the Walking Man series, and Caffery’s quest remains utterly compelling.

It’s far from Hayder’s only talent, of course. She has a knack – perhaps more so than any other crime writer working today – for the disturbing scene: the chilling little details that cause a passage to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. The setting here is a case in point. Caffery is (eventually) called in to investigate a series of disturbances at a secure hospital. There are rumours of a ghostly dwarf – the Maude – stalking the corridors, and a vicious killer has recently been released and vanished into the community. In the background, Caffery is pursuing the truth about his brother, while also dealing with the ongoing fallout of a … well, that would be telling. You can read this as a standalone, but it probably helps to read at least Ritual, Skin and Gone first (Or at least, reading the series backwards might spoil the earlier books slightly). But read them you should – and then this too, because Poppet is chilling and disquieting, and builds to an unforced climax (cough, sorry, twelve years old, cough) that is hugely satisfying, not only in terms of resolving the various crimes in the book but on a quietly emotional level. Dare I say it’s moving? I do. I dare.

 

3. The Machine, by James Smythe

themachineAlong with Patrick Ness, James Smythe is an author I’ve read two books by this year. The first of those, The Explorer, I enjoyed a great deal, not least because everybody died a short distance into the novel, and I was intrigued to see where Smythe could possibly take it. (The answer: very interesting places indeed). But The Machine is better, I think. Many reviews mention Frankenstein, and that’s certainly a reasonable reference point. The Machine is the story of Beth, living alone (at first) on a terrifying near-future council estate, the community ravaged by poverty and punished by the (vividly-described) conditions of an environment in decline. Beth’s husband is a former soldier, confined to a care home after the machine of the title took his bad memories, and more besides, away and left him catatonic. The machines have been banned, but Beth acquires a black market version, with the intention of bringing her husband home and reinstalling the memories that were removed. However bad it was before, it is worse now, and she wants that damaged man back.

That won’t end well, we think – and of course, it doesn’t, although not necessarily in quite the way we might be expecting. Honestly, there is a huge amount to admire here: Smythe’s precise and evocative prose; the careful and elaborate but invisible world-building; the ominously rendered presence of the machine itself. But what stayed with me most is the character of Beth, engaged in a quest we know is foolhardy, but which is also so achingly relatable that we can’t help but understand and want her to succeed.

 

2. The Cry, by Helen FitzGerald

the cryThe Cry begins with an increasingly fraught long haul flight, a scene that will immediately ring awful bells of recognition, especially for parents. From the very start, we sympathise with Joanna, ostensibly the book’s main character, as she struggles to calm her crying, inconsolable baby, as she feels inadequate and insecure about motherhood, and as she faces down the increasing annoyance and impatience of the other passengers. Her husband, Alistair, sleeps most of the way. The family are on their way to Australia, to fight for custody of Alistair’s daughter from a previous marriage. A short time after the plane lands, Joanna’s baby goes missing from the couple’s car, and the pair become the centre of an international media storm.

I’ve seen a number of reviews that disclose what happens to the baby, and in fairness, the reader is in on events early on in real time, but I have no intention of saying it here. In a more conventional thriller, perhaps that mystery would be central, but FitzGerald is far more interested in exploring the ramifications that unfold from an awful moral quandary. And through the eyes of the other main character – Alistair’s ex-wife, whom he left for Joanna – we gradually understand the wider moral culpability of everyone involved. Everything is portrayed superbly, from Joanna’s increasing mental instability to the blasts of social media following the investigation that occasionally intrude, and the book builds (you think impossibly at first) to a conclusion that manages to satisfy even as it breaks your heart. Brilliant stuff.

 

1. Like Plastic, by K

likeplasticWhat? By whom? And what the fuck is that cover supposed to be? Three eminently reasonable questions, and let’s take the middle one first. K is a pseudonym for the writer Kevin Wignall, who has written crime novels, such as the amazing Who is Conrad Hirst?, and also the YA fantasy Mercian Trilogy (as K J Wignall). The cover? Well, I can’t explain that – although this is a self-published book (you can buy it here), and if ever there was a case for not judging a book by its cover, then here we have it.

As to the what, Like Plastic is the story of London-based Russian gangster Alexei Shakirov, who has the unusual fetish – and bear with me here – of drugging young women and stealing a lock of their pubic hair for his private collection. His latest distraught victim – Megumi, a Japanese tourist – phones her cousin in Tokyo. Roku and his wife Yuko resolve to come to London to retrieve the hair and restore Megumi’s honour. The twist is that Roku is obsessed with (fictional) comic book character Brett Plastic, a James Bond-esque figure with the superpower of extreme niceness. Roku plans to resolve the situation in a manner of which his hero would approve, and sets about being eminently reasonable in a way that exacerbates proceedings through a series of misunderstandings.

And why is this my favourite book of the year? Put simply, because it’s full of affection and joy. Despite the subject matter, it’s constantly amusing and utterly, utterly warm-hearted. The prose is clipped and precise (and this is a very short book), yet it packs in a surprising amount of plot amidst the wonderful set-pieces (a food fight in a kitchen; the farcical pursuit of a woman shopping; fireworks). The characters come alive to the exact extent they need to, and most are endearingly drawn. Even better, the main story is interrupted with almost scholarly discussions of the Brett Plastic comics (which become increasingly dark as they go, as the effort of being nice begins to wear on the fictional crime fighter), culminating in a final passage that provides a priceless wink to the audience. It’s a wink that says: we’ve all just been having a lot of fun here, haven’t we? And the answer is: yes. Yes, we really have.

And that cover? Well, if it’s really putting you off, you can always go here instead. Like Plastic is in development as a graphic novel, and some much better artwork is there. I for one can’t wait.

(Honourable mentions? Go on, then. The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes; The Adjacent, by Christopher Priest; First Novel, by Nicholas Royle; After I’m Gone, by Laura Lippman; The Year of the Ladybird, by Graham Joyce. On a different day, any one of them could have graced my top 5. But today is not that day.)

10 books for Halloween

Posted by on October 30th, 2013

1. Haunted House, by Jan Pienkowski

Everyone’s got to start somewhere, haven’t they? I still have the copy of this I read as a kid, and I look forward to introducing my son to it soon. Maybe there are no real scares in it – it’s too friendly for that – but it remains magical. The ghost that appears above the bed is amazing.

2. Struwwelpeter, by Heinrich Hoffmann

One of the primary reasons I needed a light in my room when I was a kid. A lot of it is in the illustrations. The long-legged scissor man who bursts in and snips off thumbs is pretty much the epitome of horror for me, and always will be. I had so many nightmares because of this book. Wonderful.

3. Pet Sematary, by Stephen King

This is the most hopeless (in the best sense) of King’s work: a moving, beautifully-written, carefully-constructed car-crash of a novel, which has only taken on deeper resonance after becoming a parent. It pretty much takes my legs out from under me and breaks my heart whenever I read it.

4. Books of Blood, By Clive Barker

Six books in all, thirty short stories in total, compiled into two volumes, both of which I have signed from long, long ago. There is so much invention in these tales that it’s intimidating to look back at them now. An absolutely astonishing burst of terrifying creativity. In The Hills, The Cities is my personal high point.

5. Killing for Culture, by David Kerekes and David Slater

An investigation into the depiction of real death in film, debunking the myth of the snuff film while covering genuine examples of actual recorded atrocities. It’s comprehensive and authoritative – and of course utterly outdated now in light of sites such as LiveLeak and Ogrish. A callback to more innocent days, perhaps, when Faces of Death was as bad as it gets. You couldn’t write something like this these days, because it would require tens of thousands of pages.

6. The End of Alice, by A M Homes

An utterly soul-destroying account of the correspondence between an incarcerated fifty-something paedophile and a 19 year old girl apparently seeking his mentorship while she seduces a young boy. As the narrator appraoches his parole hearing, he unravels, and we learn the devastating truth about his crime. Compelling, horrifying and painfully convincing.

7. The Girl Next Door, by Jack Ketchum

Inspired by the real-life case of Sylvia Likens, Ketchum relates the visceral, uncomfortable story of the torture and murder of a teenage girl by the community supposed to protect her, all told through the eyes of a teenage boy who perhaps could intervene but is ultimately too scared to. Heartbreaking, thought-provoking, and quietly shaking with moral outrage, the book challenges your own complicity with every turn of the page. It always reminds me of Haneke’s comment about Funny Games: that the people who walk out early are the ones who didn’t need to watch it.

8. The Treatment, by Mo Hayder

In some ways, Birdman is more horrific, but the conceit behind this novel is so uniquely awful. The novel as a whole is a clear example of crime not only taking from the horror genre, but then striding back into it afterwards, looking around – and levelling the surrounding land. About as unpleasant as a thriller can be, but so, so compelling.

9. Communion, by Whitley Strieber

An allegedly real account by Strieber of abductions he suffered by aliens, coupled with an examination of his own past, where such abductions and interactions begin to flower as horrifying extrapolations from suppressed memories. No, I don’t remotely believe in alien abduction. Yes, when I wake up in the middle of the night, the imagery from this story absolutely bloody terrifies me. Sometimes in daylight too.

10. 20th Century Ghosts, by Joe Hill

It’s not the most frightening collection, but it is superb, and in fact the most affecting stories here are the ones that aim for the heart as much as the gut. The title story is one of my favourites: frightening, and yet incredibly moving. The five loveliest words in cinema? Indeed.

favourite books of 2012

Posted by on December 25th, 2012

Here is a visual list of the books I read this year. It’s slightly pitiful, in terms of quantity rather than quality. I always think to myself “I wish I’d read more this year” – and I genuinely mean it at the moment of thinking. But the truth is that I go through periods of time when I’m less interested in reading fiction, and perhaps a book every two weeks (on average) is my level, even though I can read one a day when the mood takes me. As always, I endeavour to do better next year. Etcetera.

Anyway, in no particular order aside from the last, these were my favourite five books this year.

1) Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

It’s almost redundant to pick this, as I’m sure it will be on a lot of people’s ‘best of’ lists, but the fact is that it deserves to be. Amy Dunnes vanishes on her wedding anniversary; we follow the investigation from her husband Nick’s first-person perspective and from Amy’s diary entries leading up to the disappearance. The book starts slowly, then begins to pile on the twists at a frankly alarming rate. Somehow, it always manages to stay on the tracks, emerging finally as a riveting take on the gender wars. I loved Sharp Objects, but only liked Dark Places. Flynn’s third novel, though, reads like an author who’s shifted gears and is now in total command of her material.

2) Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts

Roberts, writing as beautifully as ever, marries golden age SF to golden age crime, with a novel told in three parts. Summarised (for ease), we have a prison escape, a whodunnit and a locked room mystery, all set in a future solar system, with the eponymous rebel the known culprit in all three apparently impossible crimes. The pleasures are various: the revelation of how each murder was committed; the fascinating, shifting character of Glass himself; Roberts’s brilliant prose; the humour. The first section in particular – the prison escape – is so good that I immediately read it again after finishing it.

3) Rubbernecker, by Belinda Bauer

This is a cheat, as the book isn’t released until January, but I was lucky enough to read a proof copy, and it’s extraordinarily good. It’s the story of Patrick, a young man with Asperger’s, who enrolls on an anatomy course, trying to understand the secrets of life and death. With his particular focus, he’s the only person who notices evidence of a possible murder. What makes the book so good is primarily Patrick – he’s a tremendously likeable protagonist, and Bauer renders him perfectly – but also the way the plot completely eschews melodrama, often refusing the obvious directions a story like this could take, never engaging in a set-piece for the sake of it. It’s low key – and is told deceptively simply – and a pleasure to read from first page to last.

4) Ghostman, by Roger Hobbs

Another cheat, but never mind: this is a top-notch thriller. The main character – an expert armed robber – is drawn out of semi-retirement to help a gangster locate the missing money from a botched casino job. And with ruthless efficiency, he goes about doing so, moving through an increasingly messy web. The book has been likened to Lee Child (the page-turning aspect, I guess) and Ocean’s 11 (it involves heists) – and also to Drive; Ghostman’s protagonist shares a similar rung on the criminal ladder to Sallis’s – a pawn, effectively, but far smarter and more deadly than people realise. I’d add JJ Connolly’s “Layer Cake” as a touchstone, as well, as well, as the books share a similar level of authenticity and voice. The book would succeed on the main character’s charisma alone, but there’s far more besides. This is highly likely to eat the world in 2013.

(… drum roll …)

5) Hawthorn and Child, by Keith Ridgway

My favourite novel of the year. It’s actually eight short stories, all of which feature, either centrally or as cameos, at least one of the two titular detectives, along with a handful of recurring characters and the same North London setting.

It’s a composite novel, then, although no clear narrative as such emerges from the whole. The shooting in the first story is quickly forgotten about and remains unsolved; the gangster that casts a shadow over various stories is never shown doing anything obviously illegal; other investigations fade away or barely begin. Fantastical elements creep in: an editor, who may or may not be a serial killer, investigating a manuscript about gangs of wolves and rats operating in the city; a football referee who sees ghosts; various delusionals and their visions.

Connections exist between the stories, but they’re often oblique, and you’re unsure what, if anything, they’re supposed to mean. The links that matter appear to be missing; there is a sense that the  narrative exists in the spaces between what is being said. Like Hawthorn, the reader is almost forced to scribble the details in a notebook and attempt – ultimately fruitlessly – to make sense of them. At times, the book feels like the text of a fantasy-crime crossover novel that has been dropped, with an assortment of salvaged pieces then assembled by someone who never read the original. The book ends almost at random, with a lovely subversion of the kind of domestic buddy-cop scene you’d find in something like Lethal Weapon.

If this sounds frustrating in theory, it isn’t in practise, and for a number of reasons. The first is that this is all, of course, part of the point. Fictions usually provide a narrative: a beginning, a middle, an end. Detectives – especially in crime fiction – engage in that construction explicitly. But of course, we all know real life is not like that. What happens tends to lack a three- or five-act structure; characters are rarely nailed down; much of what happens to us is messy and unresolved. Reading Hawthorn and Child reflects that in a satisfying way.

The second reason is that all eight stories function as self-contained pieces, each of them pleasing and complete on their own terms. The order matters, to an extent, but you could read any single story on its own without wasting your time. The second – “Goo Book”, in which a sympathetic character is drawn into chauffeuring a gangster – is one of the best noir stories I’ve read in a long time. That and “Rothko’s Eggs” were the highlights for me, but none of the pieces here are less than brilliant.

Finally, the writing is simple and superb. It is pared down and to the point (and there is always a point). There is so much here that is admirable and perfectly done, from the structural – “How To Have Fun With A Fat Man”’s juxtaposition of Hawthorn’s engagement in an orgy with his experiences on the frontline of a riot – to individual sentences and paragraphs, such as this urgent and telling passage:

“I know that something has gone wrong. I know that the fault is visible. You can discern it in everything I say to you. In most of what I say to you. In how I say it. I know this. I am cracked like ice. I know this. But listen. Listen to me. This is important. Beneath the fault there is solid ground. Beneath the ice. Under all the cracks. Under all the cracks there is something that is not broken.”

An interesting question, I suppose: is this crime fiction? The answer is – I think – a resounding yes. It is not detective fiction, strictly-speaking, although it has elements of that, along with nods to noir fiction and thrillers, here and there, but it is a crime novel. In the wearying literary versus genre wars, one familiar shot can be summarised as “when genre fiction is very good or does unexpected things, it can end up being slipped, via some nighttime sleight of hand, into the category of literary fiction”. I’d suggest Hawthorn and Child is a good example of that; it takes many staples of crime fiction and uses them in interesting ways to interesting effect. But while the furniture might be chopped up and stuck to the walls and the ceiling, it is still recognisably the furniture. Regardless (and with reference to another familiar saying: that in terms of genre, there are only good books and bad books), let’s just observe that this is a very, very good book indeed.

black flowers links / my best of 2011

Posted by on December 18th, 2011

Just a few me-related things. First off, Elizabeth White provides a totally lovely review of Black Flowers. There are also links at the bottom of that piece to the earlier reviews, etc, from when she very kindly hosted a week dedicated to me last year. The review is really nice, and much appreciated – thank you very much, APMonkey!

In related news, Luca Veste – a man who’s exploded onto the crime scene this year, and is the brains behind the Off The Record charity eBook you’ve all already bought – has picked his top 5 novels of the year, and Black Flowers is there, amongst lovely company. You can read the list here.

And finally, Luca – again – is hosting various writers’ ‘top 5s’ on his site. So you can read what I thought were the best 5 books of 2011 here. (It’s not true about the kitten, by the way).

 

Reading…

Posted by on February 8th, 2011

I was fairly poor at reading last year (by which I mean I didn’t read as much as I should, not that I found reading tricky in itself). My plan is to make up for it this year as much as I can. No idea what that will mean in reality, but in an attempt to shame myself a little I’m planning to post lists, comments, reviews etc here as and when I finish something … too late, though! Too late! Because, you see, I’ve finished a few already.So join me as we play catch up.

1) The Lifecycle of Software Objects, by Ted Chiang

You can actually read this online here, although, if you do, it would then be courteous to head out and buy some of Chiang’s stuff, which is usually short (this novella is his longest work) and invariably rewarding. He’s a writer who prizes quality over quantity, which means that pretty much every one of the handful of stories he’s produced has been nominated for – and often won – major awards. The Lifecycle of Software Objects may be his best work so far. It’s an entirely believable take on the development of artificial intelligence – full of imagination, insight and, well, intelligence. Like many of his stories, it’s also grounded in the human and ultimately very moving in its own quiet, unsentimental way. If I read anything better this year I’ll be surprised. So thoroughly recommended that there aren’t words to express it.

2) Unidentified Novel, by Nameless Famous Writer

If you’re reading this and wondering if Nameless Famous Writer is you – trust me, it isn’t. The main reason for not naming this person (who I don’t know) is that I didn’t finish Unidentified Novel and so it wouldn’t really be fair on either of us. Because it’s possible – for example – that the plot (which revolves around rape) gathers some weight or import in the sections I haven’t read, and I wouldn’t want to look stupid having missed some deep artistic point at the end of it all. For our purposes here, it’s sufficient to observe that the percentage I did read wasn’t all that great … and … actually, let’s not gild the lily here. Several times, I looked up from this book and wished I was dead. Twice – twice – I considered the possibility that I actually might be dead, and on both occasions I felt only relief. Why did I carry on? Well, we return to that ‘not reading enough’ thing. Because, you see, it was guilt that made me persevere – eyes throbbing, heart increasingly heavy with shit – a kind of must finish, must finish impulse. And then I had a revelation. Stop this, the revelation told me, and read something else. So simple; it was a wonderful sensation. At that point, I almost happily threw Unidentified Fucking Novel across The Fucking Room – and probably would have done if I hadn’t purchased The Fucking Thing on My Fucking Kindle. But even given that it was touch and go.

Onwards.

3) Splinter, by Sebastian Fitzek

Plot-wise, this is one of those books. Psychological trickery. Is he mad or isn’t he – that kind of thing. Splinter involves experiments to erase painful memories, and a main character whose wife has died and yet suddenly seems to have come back to life, and who finds someone else is living in his apartment … and so on. You get the picture. Your patience with this book will therefore correspond precisely with your patience for this particular mode of storytelling. Things to observe: a) in this type of story pretty much anything can be made to happen, so it tends to be very twisty indeed, and Splinter is no exception; b) your lasting impression of the story will probably depend upon the quality of the final reveal, which validates and – impossibly! – explains all those twists. Splinter is a fast and propulsive read, containing lots of short chapters with cliffhanger endings that seem impossible – (!) – to resolve, and it just about pulls the whole thing off. In the end, there are only a few ways this sort of story can resolve, and between this and Therapy I wonder if Fitzek has now basically covered all of them. But he can certainly write. Splinter has an undeniable anarchic energy to it and is worth your time. Especially given what we discussed a moment ago under point 2.

4) The Razor Gate, by Sean Cregan

Or by John Rickards, as some of us know him, but the Cregan name differentiates his vaguely SF, industrial, biohazard noir – this and last year’s The Levels – from his earlier crime thrillers. There’s a danger in reviewing your friends, but The Razor Gate is certainly his best work so far. The plot involves a new serial crime – people (known subsequently as “Clocks”) are abducted at random and implanted with tiny biological bombs that will kill them in exactly one year’s time. They know it, and yet nobody can stop it. It’s an idea ripe with potential both for philosophical reflection and for action, and John delivers both here in spades, as a reporter attempts to discover the truth about the people behind the “curse”, and a rogue cop hunts for the same in order to save his Clock girlfriend. But what impresses even more about the book is the atmosphere and setting: the world-building. It’s all so coherent, so pungent (in a good way), without ever being over-bearing. You frequently want to pause the story and just look around – learn a little more about your surroundings – and the book is so well-realised you get the impression John already knows stories about every location here, no matter how briefly mentioned, and every single character.

Basically, this is great stuff. You should read this. It’s a fucking crime of culture that book 2) – say – is a massive bestseller, whereas this, with all its invention, all its passion and obvious intellectual investment, is not.

5) The Red Hourglass, by Gordon Grice

Not much to say about this. I’ve read it a few times before, and  I make a point of reading it again every so often. It’s a non-fiction account of a man’s (very practical) interest in various predators – spiders mostly – and gives a unique and horrifying glimpse into the natural world and how cruel it can be. Great if horrible stuff – the tarantula hawk wasp is the subject of nightmare. Cleanses the palette, what can I say.

6) Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane

Well, who doesn’t like Lehane? Nobody sane, obviously. He’s a phenomenal writer, and yet this, the latest (and likely the last) installment in the Kenzie/Gennaro series, and, more specifically, a direct sequel to Gone Baby Gone, still leaves a somewhat mixed taste in the mouth. Here, very briefly, is what I thought was wrong with it. Many of the characters espouse at length on some social concern, until it begins to feel like Patrick is meeting a series of cartoon stereotypes who suddenly become very erudite when they have Stuff To Say About The Real World. At such times (which we’ll note remain smart and entertaining) the author’s touch feels a little heavy, a little too overt. And the whole story is slightly ludicrous. At least one plot point in particular – something Patrick is told at the school – makes literally no sense in terms of that character knowing it and presenting it as they do, and every sense in driving Patrick on, the reader with him. I suspect there are more, though I’m not inclined to over-think it.

Because ultimately the good stuff outweighs all that by a huge amount. Lehane’s prose is typically excellent, although what I’m really saying by that is he has a fantastic ear for banter. The dialogue sizzles, in an idealised nobody-in-real-life-talks-that-way manner, and Patrick’s first person narration is no exception. On every level, this is readable; you will not put this down if you start. It’s well-constructed, gripping. Finally, it’s moving … look, if it seems like I’m damning with faint praise here then I don’t mean to be. It’s a good, entertaining novel, thoroughly enjoyable – but that’s all it is. In terms of weight, this isn’t realistic in the way The Wire is meant to be, and it isn’t a stunning, resonant work of literature on the level of Mystic River. An apt comparison for this side of the pond might be something like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – which I liked very much indeed, and enjoyed a huge amount. And I liked and enjoyed this book very much indeed as well.

Some thoughts on A Serbian Film

Posted by on December 6th, 2010

A lot of people wouldn’t have heard of this picture if it hadn’t been pulled, eleventh hour, from the FrightFest 2010 programme. The pull came as a result of the BBFC demanding over forty cuts, amounting to over four minutes of running time, pretty much at the last minute. The film-makers decided that would be impossible to achieve in the time given – and also: it would compromise the overall vision of the movie; the whole thing had been shown in full at festivals before; and the audience had full access to the Internet, knew what to expect, and were grown adults capable of making up their own minds.

Anyway, I’ve seen it, and I thought I would give some random, uncoordinated thoughts on the picture as a whole.

1)
The director has made various comments as to the violence being either a commentary on, a metaphor for, influenced by, a result of, or a reflection on the violence in Serbia’s history. It’s always tempting, in the face of such pronouncements, to think “you’re a pretentious twat”. (For example, while viewing a documentary on A Nightmare on Elm Street as a teenager, an onscreen commentator argued Freddy’s glove was scary because it played on a shared genetic memory of a tiger’s claw reaching into a cave, whereupon my grandmother tutted and said “you pretentious twat”).

However, upon viewing the film, it’s very clear it’s intended to work on this level. It could be far more gory, exploitative and full-on vile if all it wanted was a medal for those things. The film is full of borderline-impenetrable symbolism and imagery, and couldn’t more clearly be trying to mean something. More on which in a minute.

2.
The visceral content aside, it’s wonderfully lit, framed and filmed. I mean, it’sbeautifully shot. You could, as the cliche goes, probably take a frame at random and find an effective screenshot. In comparison to absolute trash like the August Underground films, it’s in a whole different cinematic league – undeniably. And the acting, especially from the main character, is very good indeed.

3.
Unfortunately, points 1 and 2 aren’t really enough. Even though the references to the Serbo-Croatian war are there, they appear so deliberately specific that most will be wasted on a woefully under-educated international audience (including myself), so it’s impossible to judge how effective they might be. I could tell the links were there. The problem was that, having no real idea what they meant, I had no choice but to follow the plot literally on its own terms, which, I suspect, is how most people will come to it. (Although, obviously, I hesitate to presume everyone is as ignorant as me).

4.
This is the basic plot [contains spoilers, and triggers, as does the following section].

The first thing to note about the Wiki description is that it’s basically a description of atrocities, and is actually far more salacious in tone than the film itself. Having its cake and eating it, you might say (look at this sick filth!), much as many newspaper reports did around the time of the FrightFest pull.

The second thing to note is that it doesn’t really describe the effect of the film at all, because it renders all the horrors in the same monotone palette. A man being killed by an erect penis thrust into his eye is about as convincing on screen as you’d imagine it would be in real life (ie not at all). Some of the other scenes aren’t as they are described, and the most infamous part – while undeniably horrible as a concept – appears on screen for a second or two, and even then is mostly implied. I can understand the BBFC wanting cuts – and, in my opinion, it would genuinely benefit from a few – but I actually can’t see four minutes being necessary.

That isn’t to say it’s not a horrific film. It most certainly is. But it is to say there’s a fair amount of hype around it. These things are impossible to quantify, but I would watch A Serbian Film again before I sat through Grotesque (banned entirely last year, and a dreadful piece of work) or Irreversible (freely available, and, in its own horrible way, a shattering masterpiece). It’s probably on a par with Martyrs, as these things go.

Actually, Irreversible is a significant comparison here. Both films share similar production values and levels of artistry. Noe’s film, despite being much more distressing to watch than A Serbian Film, is ultimately a much more rewarding experience because of its transcendent ending. A Serbian Film is genuinely nihilistic and pushes you ever further into the filth – witness the description of the last scene on the wiki link – whereas Irreversible does the opposite, if only temporarily: rewinding you to sun-lit happiness from a much darker point you’re going to reach, like it or not.

5.
Whatever the director’s intentions, it works far better for ne as a horror film about the porn industry than it does about Serbia’s past. As (horrific) commentary on the processes, impacts and escalations of pornography, the film is actually very effective indeed, give or take. The central message of human beings as meat, following instincts, authority and instruction, in ever-intensifying scenarios, fits that narrative better than it does one around a specific war, or a country recovering from that war.

(It doesn’t quite work, of course, because retro-fitting a narrative onto a film this precise is always going to end up a little malformed. For example, the main character is too much of a misogynist from the start. The sexual violence isn’t handled carefully enough to justify that point. And so on).

6.
Why are you watching this?

Well, first of all, let me say my favourite film in the world ever is The Princess Bride. That’s an absolute. Possibly followed by About A Boy. (No, really). Or else Stand By Me. Last night alone, I had a conversation on twitter about how wonderful Labyrinth is. And it is. I would watch all of those again a hundred times before watching A Serbian Film again once.

That said, there’s a place for horror. Today, the Guardian published its top 25 horror films (here), and, while there’s nothing wrong with that list, it’s ultimately very safe. If anything, it sort of begs the question of what horror is for. I like a lot of the films on that list, but I’d happily watch all of them again, and might even put them on for fun. Should horror be fun? Sometimes, maybe. But in a world where commercial horror films contain mindless atrocities to be cheered along at (I’m looking at you, Saw franchise) or where top ten lists favour films you can stroke a beard to, there’s something to be said for a film you never, ever, everwant to watch again – but are still, weirdly, glad you did. Because it managed to be challenging, discomforting, confrontational and genuinely disturbing. A serious film – or, indeed, a book – that you want to throw against a wall – and would do, except you know that won’t make it go away.

A Serbian Film doesn’t manage to be that worthwhile, but it’s not half as terrible as you might have been led to believe. And unlike the vile-as-fuck The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, it’s not available in Asda with Danny Dyer’s face on the DVD cover. That said, it is – obviously – very much not for everyone.