By Russel D McLean
Still time to enter Russel’s competition – and did you know that for the rest of this month his short story e-collection THE DEATH OF RONNIE SWEETS (and other stories) is only 99c US and 86p UK? Available for Kindle (US and UK) and for other e-readers. He also asks that you please forgive this moment of blatant self-promotion.
And so Christmas time approaches. One more week to go. Whaddaya mean you ain’t gone Christmas shopping? What, you were waiting for my recommendations of books to go buy? Apart from my own? (available from all good booksellers both physical and digital, you know - - and every copy sold helps me keep The Literary Critic in the style to which she is accustomed). But of course, I’m not the only starving author out there and the following is a list of ten books from the last year I think you really need to buy. Either for yourself, or as a gift for someone you know who’s really going to appreciate a damn good read; especially one with the McLean seal of approval.
1) The End of Everything by Megan Abbott – My vote for book of the year, in part because it hit me completely from left field. I was already in love with Abbott’s work, but what she does here is incredible. The book is told entirely from the perspective of a thirteen year old girl, and it pulls no punches in its depiction of a world that is all appearance and snakes beneath the skin. The prose unfolds in a dream-like fashion, and the soft-focus of a character looking back on themselves and their lives hides ugly, unsettling truths. The cover – on both sides of the Atlantic – makes the book look like literary women’s fiction, which in a sense it is. But it is also one of the purest, most captivating and most disturbing books you’ll have read this year regardless of your genre. Abbott has excelled herself and set a high bar for other authors to reach.
2) A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block – Block’s back, baby. And so is Matt Scudder. This one rewinds to the eighties where Matt was first coming to terms with being an alcoholic. As such, it is stepped in atmosphere and a sense of moving forward. Matt is at his most interesting when he teeters on the edge, and here we find him a fascinating and volatile version of the man we’ve come to know. The book is as much about addiction as it is about murder, and a hell of a reminder as to why Matt Scudder is one of the most interesting and fascinating of the post-Archer PIs.
3) Fun and Games & Hell and Gone by Duane Swierczynksi – Okay, so its two books in this entry, but they are so closely connected I count them as one. Swierczynski is the king of the action novel. His plots are preposterous, his body count high and his adrenaline mainlined. He’s a pulp prince for the new millennium and one of the very few writers who can pace his action in prose to the point where you’re literally sweating with exertion along with his characters. Charlie Hardie is the kind of action hero who’s going to be mentioned in the same breath as John McLean.
4) Already Gone by John Rector – Rector follows up his brilliant THE COLD KISS with an equally terrifying slice of mystery, as we follow one man trying to atone for who he used to be as he becomes convinced that the past is finally catching up. But nothing is as it seems and this is one of a very few twist-thrillers where you really find yourself blindsided by the revelations.
5) Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs – I love a good horror novel, but I’m not a big Lovecraft fan. However, Jacobs takes some of Lovecraft’s legacy and makes it his own in this sprawling, brilliant and unsettlingly fun novel set in the deep south during the 1950’s. A great feel for the period and some brilliantly realised moments of supernatural terror make this one a winner.
6) Choke Hold by Christa Faust – Hands down the most fun I’ve had a (former) porn star this year. Angel Dare is back in this sequel to Money Shot, and somehow she’s even more kick-ass than before. The writing is lean and mean and there’s a hell of a lot more going on beneath the surface than you might realise at first. Also, it’s a slam-bang adventure with some real standout set pieces. Just… perfection.
7) Dove Season by Johnny Shaw – Kinda controversial debut given it came from Amazon’s publishing arm (at least one bookstore refused to stock it) but whatever your feelings about the giant retailer and their reach, there’s no denying that this is one hell of a debut – great sense of location and a lot of ambition. It’s a game of two halves, with the second finding the action in an unstoppable freefall that’s removed from the sedate pace that came before, but Shaw earns every moment and shows a real promise for the future.
8) Truth Lies Bleeding by Tony Black – Great start to a new series by Black. Its got more mainstream appeal than the Dury novels, considering the lead’s a copper, but of course Black’s got far more than yer standard procedural here. It’s a novel that revels in the shadows, leavened by a profound sense of dark humour that runs softly through the narrative. It’s the novel that should start to bring Black to the attention of a wider audience. And on top of that, it’s a natural progression to everything he’s done so far. Bravo, Black. Bravo.
9) Moriarty: The Hound of the D’ubervilles by Kim Newman – It’s not perfect (a little overlong in places, but then that might be part of the joke) but Newman’s tongue in cheek chronicling of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis hits all the right spots with some great gags and very nice appropriating of contemporary literature that make for a very fun read.
10) FIFTH VICTIM by Zoe Sharp – My impatience with the action novel is often quite severe, so its unusual that two should appear on my top ten list. Fifth Victim is more serious in its approach to action than Swierczynski’s homage to insanity mentioned earlier, but it is also one of the most successful and engaging thrillers I’ve read all year. Charlie Fox is – dare I say it – so much more interesting and developed than Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, and while a lesser writer might have made her a typical action hero in drag, Sharp manages to make Fox into a fascinating and fully rounded character. In other words, this is a woman who can truly kick ass. But it’s the emotional development that really marks out Sharp and Fox, and make FIFTH VICTIM a truly brilliant action novel.
So there we are. My top 10 reads of the year. Sure, they’re mostly crime novels, but they’re also a rich and varied representation of the talent available within the genre. So my advice to you is to hurry out to your preferred retailer and stock up. After all, if you do get snowed in this Christmas you’re going to want some damn good reads to keep you occupied…