I don’t really agree with ‘best of’ lists, but I’m happy to flag up a few books I read this year that I think are worthy of mention. However, if I was going to pick a best novel, it would be a two horse race. On the one hand, Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney. (Actually by Graham Joyce, but the artifice of the pseudonym reflects the levels of self-deception and forgery in the characters and the plot). It’s a fantastically written book about a decent, troubled man who makes a kind of living from forging books – while also drinking wine, caring for the people around him, seeing demons, and gradually struggling towards a kind of redemption. More than anything else, while never losing the genuine heart of its characters or becoming frivolous, it’s fun. An enjoyable, original, moving story. Original should certainly be applied to the other book I’d ‘single’ out: China Mieville’s stunning novel The City & The City. There’s a temptation to reveal the wonderful conceit at the heart of this – what? – urban-fantasy-crime-mystery-thriller, but I won’t. It’s about two cities, with a detective investigating a cross-border murder. It’s brilliantly-realised, enthralling, intriguing … and like nothing else out there. You’ve probably read it by now, but if you haven’t, then you really should and you won’t regret it.
Having said that, aside from a few disasters, there’s not been much I’ve read that hasn’t impressed me on some level. So – what else?
First off, It’s always nice to be able to say good things about people you know or have met. With No More Heroes, Ray Banks takes his Cal Innes series up another notch. Talking about how clever and knowing the series is would detract from the fact they’re just great books, taking the familiar notion of the PI and doing really credible and surprising real-world things with it. Claire Seeber’s Lullaby doesn’t look, on paper, like the kind of book I’d like, but I enjoyed it a lot: the story of a woman whose baby is abducted, it’s well-written, psychologically smart and, in places, dark as pitch. A preview copy of Sean Cregan’s The Levels provided my last great read of the year. It has a hint of Mieville’s novel about it, actually, and it’s also reminiscent of Jack O’Connell’s best stuff. A tough, action-packed, chemical-stained urban thriller, it creates a believably fantastical mythology in a destitute US estate and lets its characters loose within it. Look out for it in January – it’s ace. And if you haven’t read Sarah Pinborough’s wonderful The Language of Dying, then – again – you should. You’re missing out. It’s a wonderfully observed, perfectly controlled piece of fiction about a woman tending to her dying father, and is one of my favourite reads of the year.
If you’re after horror, then Kaaron Warren’s Slights delivers. More of a character piece, in some ways, than an easy, straight-forward narrative – but fuck me, what a character that is. The book is disturbing, occasionally funny (although I’m warped), and never less than totally absorbing. I’d say the same about Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth, a prose poem about warring werewolf packs that has a sweet and rewarding love story at its heart. Both read like genuine one-offs: I hope they aren’t, and I’m sure they’re not. Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places proves she certainly wasn’t: while not quite – for me – as good as Sharp Objects, it shows beyond doubt how excellent and capable a writer she is. It’s another book that’s massively strong on character and voice. As, in more of a subdued way, is Amy MacKinnon’s Tethered, about an undertaker who is drawn to the case of a murdered girl. Using flowers as a metaphor, the novel is gorgeously-realised and entirely earns its moving finale.
Two of my favourite writers had new books out: Mo Hayder with Skin, Michael Marshall with Bad Things. Neither were the best books either writer has written or will write, but both are head and shoulders above most other crime novels out there, and are well worth your time. In fact, both stand out as best-selling writers resolutely following their own paths and producing the stories they want. And I like that a lot. I also – finally – read David Morrell’s First Blood. Couldn’t put it down. Most other action-based thrillers I’ve read seem like pale imitations now. Such a good book.
Finally, a special mention for Sum by David Eagleman. It’s a slim book, containing forty conceptualisations of the afterlife. From an afterlife lived backwards to an afterlife divided into the activities of your life (however many years spent sleeping, etc), it succeeds because it makes you reflect on your life right now. Like most of these books, in fact. I’ve probably forgotten a few, but fuck it. To the writers involved – seriously – thank you, one and all.