Friday, 25 December 2009

My Favourite Books of 2009

Being an avid reader I’ve worked my way through a few paper and ink tales this year. I’ve counted up and have read twelve new (to me) books since Jan 1st 2009 and four rereads of ones I love. Also this year I purchased Necronomicon: the best weird fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. It’s a huge hardback book of around nine hundred pages with all Lovecraft’s stories including the famous Herbert West: Re-Animator, From Beyond, At The Mountains of Madness and The Unnameable. I bought it back in the summer and keep dropping in to it to read a short story here and there with still plenty left to go. Creepy, weird and freaky good it is too.

Of the new (to me) books I’ve read this year, my top five are:

5. Go Ask Malice: A Slayer's Diary by Robert Joseph Levy (2006)

A Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel about rogue slayer Faith Lehane, Go Ask Malice is presented as a journal written by Faith herself as a form of therapy encouraged by her social worker. The journal chronicles teenage Faith's troubled life in the few months leading up to her becoming a Slayer and then the first few months after. It ends with Faith, alone once again, making her way to Sunnydale. All Buffy fans know what happened next.

This is pretty dark stuff. Poor Faith had a horrible life as a kid ending up in foster care and finally in a mental institution. It's at that point that a Watcher finds her and takes her in, telling her of her destiny. Faith's Watcher, Professor Diana Dormer, is caring and protective of her new charge and the two, though very different, form a bond. But Faith is having bad dreams and blackouts. Something is trying to take control of her. Something is looking for revenge from beyond the grave. Revenge against the worst of the worst, the beast who still lives. And it is looking to use Faith, a brand new Slayer, as the instrument of its vengeance.

Go Ask Malice is a very good read and a spot on rendering of my second favourite character in the Buffyverse. The author really captures Faith's speech and attitude on the page. I found myself grinning quite a bit at some of the things she says and does with the journal approach allowing for revelatory and confessional insights in to the mind of this tough and smart yet emotionally and psychologically fragile girl. Oh, and we also find out where she gets her saying “Five by Five” from as well. Go Ask Malice is a must for Buffy fans and utterly essential for Faith fans like me while being a very good book in its own right.

4. Frostbitten by Kelley Armstrong (2009)
Frostbitten is book ten of Canadian Author Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series of supernatural drama/thrillers. The series started back in 2001 with the werewolf novel Bitten, but progressed to other interconnected tales of ghosts, witches, demons, half-demons etc. Bitten was told first person by Elena Michaels, the world’s only female werewolf, turned against her will by her (then) ex-lover Clayton Danvers. At the start of Bitten, Elena had already run away from Clay and the werewolf pack that he’d brought her in to and was trying to make a new life for herself while struggling to cope alone with her lycanthropy. However she was soon pulled back in to pack affairs when a full-scale bloody conspiracy threatened to erupt. Elena reluctantly rejoined the pack and over the intervening years she and Clayton have become a couple again and she has had two young twins by him.

Frostbitten is Elena’s fourth book and is set in the snowy wastes of Alaska, where, as the packs chief investigator and enforcer now, she has gone with Clayton to investigate rumoured wolf attacks and the disappearance of several young women. It could be just wild animals with the women’s disappearances a coincidence, but Elena suspects foul play by possible rogue werewolves. The investigation takes a few unexpected turns including dredging up faces from Clayton’s past as well as terrible memories of Elena’s childhood. And soon she discovers that there is something else is out there in the Alaskan wilderness, something previously unknown that stalks the ancient, frozen land. Something so old, primal and ferocious that it terrifies even the most powerful of werewolves.

Frostbitten, as with all Kelley’s books, is a fun read with lots of great characters thrown in to twisty plots and deadly circumstances while struggling with their own personal relationships. It also has some fun with werewolf mythology while delving deeper in to Elena’s psyche and exploring her complex relationship with Clayton as well as her troubled past and her likely future with the pack. There are mysteries to be solved, some steamy sex and plenty of chases and violent, bloody clashes both in the city and out in the snowy wilderness. Kelley’s prose is not particularly flashy but it is firmly character based and crisply descriptive and she has a knack for dry, witty dialogue. This is partly the reason she was brought in last year to write an arc for the new Angel comic at IDW. She is a Joss fan and he a fan of hers. She has the ability to really get deep inside her character’s minds and make them come alive on the page. Reading them (especially Elena, Clay and the rest of the pack) is just like catching up with old friends you haven’t seen for a long while.

But in the end, when all’s said and done, Frostbitten is just a darn good lycanthropic yarn.

3. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2002)
The Lovely Bones
On 6 December 1973 fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon was raped and murdered by her neighbour. In The Lovely Bones, Susie tells us her story in first person narration while watching over her family and friends from her own personalised heaven, ‘the in-between’, watching as they struggle to come to terms with her most awful of deaths.

The Lovely Bones was hard going. Don’t get me wrong, it is a very good book - solidly written, always intriguing and never boring. The problem is the almost unending emotional gut punches it delivers to you. For a parent reading this book I’d imagine it would be one hell of a gruelling experience. I’m not a parent and it was pretty tough for me at times. But, thankfully, despite the horror of Susie’s murder, there is a warmth and hopefulness around the tale. The Lovely Bones is primarily about discovery, growing up and moving on. It’s a unique coming of age story about someone who will never come of age - at least not as she should. It’s a love story about life and about family.

While not the best-written book ever, The Lovely Bones is always fascinating in its telling of a sad but also hopeful tale in a tough and emotionally challenging way. It is quite simply the most emotionally affecting book I’ve ever read. But it didn’t come across as sentimental or manipulative. It didn’t need to. The subject matter; the realistic way characters behave; the ponderings on love, life, loss, family, guilt, childhood - they all ring true. Powerful stuff.

2. The Travelling Vampire Show by Richard Laymon (2000)
The Travelling Vampire Show
It’s a hot August day in 1963 and three sixteen year olds - narrator Dwight and his two best friends Slim, a tomboy girl, and Rusty, an overweight boy, are determined to go and see the titular Travelling Vampire Show coming to their town that very night. The carnival show promises the only real vampire in captivity: the beautiful, seductive and utterly lethal Valeria. To get to see the show at the notorious spot outside of town called Janks Field, the three friends must overcome various obstacles as well as an unfolding mystery that someone or something may actually be out to get them. This all leads up to one heck of a thrilling and blood-curdling finale, which doesn’t go quite where you’d expect it to go.

The Travelling Vampire Show is not just a horror story. It’s also a coming of age tale much like Stephen King’s The Body (filmed as Stand By Me) - only bloodier and sexier. Getting to the Travelling Vampire Show and overcoming the many obstacles in doing so (rabid dogs, parents, troublesome siblings, arguments, accidents etc.) is the main narrative backbone. But supported by that backbone is an affecting story about three kids’ lives, the bad things some of them have had to endure and the friendships and first love that comes out of it all. This is quite a wonderful little tale with characters you can emphasise with and really care about. Slim in particular is a great creation. She’s a total tomboy and the brains of the operation but is a girl with a troubled family life and an identity crisis. She changes her name every few months depending on what book she’s been reading and what character in it she identifies with most. All three teens are on the cusp of adulthood and their relationships are changing - with each other as well as with family and peers. This is one of the main themes of the book: Change. Along with growing up and maturity in what you do and how you behave.

Along with The Stake this is, in my opinion, the late Richard Laymon’s best work. It is very well written, subtle and sensitive where needed and all out bloody, nasty and gross where you’d hope it to be. I’ve been a fan of his work since the early eighties reading his Beast House books. His style of uber-violence, sex and gore, though never very popular in the US, found a willing audience here in the UK. His books were always such wonderful titillation for a young eager horror-loving mind like mine. But the man could also write character and drama with equal amounts of depth and sensitivity when he wanted. He just didn’t do it that often. A shame really.

1. Lonely Werewolf Girl by Martin Millar (2007)
Lonely Werewolf Girl
Lonely Werewolf Girl is my favourite new (to me) book I’ve read this past year and the past several years. It does everything exactly right. The characters; the story; the tone and mood; the themes and most of all the humour are all utterly perfect. I’ve never laughed out loud so much while reading a book as I did with this one. It’s like Martin Millar reached in to my brain, scooped out my weirdest, deepest thoughts and wrote this novel just for me. This is most excellent. My only complaint is that the version I have (self-published by the author in the UK for various technical and legal reasons) has quite a few silly typos – something he has apologised for explaining he had no editor or beta reader at the time. The book did have proper publishing deals overseas and has been a big hit. So much so that Martin is currently writing the sequel and a movie is allegedly in the works. A ‘proper’ UK edition of Lonely Werewolf Girl is being published in March 2010, which will have fixed all those typo problems. But to be honest it didn’t really bug me that much as the book is otherwise so well written and wonderfully funny and creative that you just take the typos as a quirk rather in keeping with its punk style.

I won’t bother with a plot synopsis as I’ve already written about this book at length in an earlier blog.

Lonely Werewolf Girl blog post

A great excerpt:

Upstairs, Thrix was shocked at Sarapen’s sudden appearance. She didn’t understand how he could have arrived without her receiving a warning. It was impossible. But there he stood, in his full wolf form, huge and menacing. Vex was nearest to him. She giggled.
“A big wolf! He’s so cute,” she said, and started to pat his head.
Malveria spoke sharply to her niece.
"Agrivex. Please do not pat the werewolf. He is a deadly enemy."
"But he's so cute!"
“Step away this instant.”
Vex withdrew, grumbling that her aunt never let her do anything.

The bottom line is Lonely Werewolf Girl is a fabulous book by a gifted writer who can weave a big, complex tale with a myriad of distinct and interesting characters while juggling drama, action and humour exactly right. I’ve since bought two other books of his to read - Lux the Poet and The Good Fairies of New York. I shall be diving in to The Good Fairies of New York next. A tale about rebellious Scottish fairies going to New York and getting mixed up with a fairy civil war, some oddball humans and The New York Dolls’ Johnny Thunders (?) Sounds bonkers. Yay!

So there you go, my most favoured reading material of 2009. In 2010 Kelley Armstrong has two new books out and Martin Millar has his Lonely Werewolf Girl sequel. Bring it on.

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