Let me come clean. This is not a list of the best books of the year. Instead, this is the time of year when I look back over everything I’ve read in the past 12 months. This year I went for some classics and tried to read outside my comfort zone, which is of course science fiction and horror. The results were… interesting.
I also read a lot of short fiction, which is not included here, so bear that in mind. Anyway, here are the novels I read this year and what I thought about them. Maybe you agree. Maybe you think I’m wrong. If so, let me know why!
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
Okay, so this is firmly in my comfort zone. But I had to read this horror classic. I have a confession to make, though – I never really thought the film was scary. Maybe this is because I never saw it until recently, and it has dated rather badly. I also thought the film was a little one note – Regan is possessed, end of story. However, the book was much better. It was subtle, with great characterisation as Regan’s mother has to accept that something supernatural has intruded into her world of fashion magazines and modern living. The priest Damien Karras is also three-dimensional and tragic. When the exorcist himself reappears late in the novel, we know things are about to get a lot worse. A lot of things that don’t make sense in the film make perfect sense in the novel. And when the audiobook is read by William Blatty himself, you know you’re in for a wild ride! Great stuff.
The Hunger by Charles Beaumont
Charles Beaumont was a huge influence on me thanks to Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone series in the 1960s. Although he died tragically young, he left behind a substantial body of work. The Hunger is a collection of horror, sci-fi and dramatic short stories. Right from the start you know you’re in the hands of a master. His “The Crooked Man”, which describes a future where heterosexuality is illegal, is disturbing in its plausibility, and contains a sting that sticks around long after the story ends. The most memorable story for me was “The Hunger” itself, a tale of the soon-to-be victim of a serial killer. The ending is as unexpected as it is inevitable. Beaumont created stories of real depth but with a wicked twist in the tale. A tragedy he died so young.
Casino Royale and Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming
Having never read the original James Bond novels I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was nothing like the films. Casino Royale is closer to Daniel Craig than Roger Moore’s pulp superspy. I was surprised how low-key and believable these stories were, nothing at all like the blockbuster movies. Bond himself is little more than a cypher. However, the novels’ structure intrigued me. In Act One our hero plunges into the world of espionage, which is alternately glamorous and exciting (casinos or the Harlem underworld). In Act Two something horrible happens to either our hero or his friends, resulting in some kind of brutal torture or maiming (I was shocked to see long-time Bond ally Felix Lightner meet a grisly fate early on). In Act Three Bond enacts bloody revenge on the bad guy, only to find a bitter sweet ending at best in this murky, treacherous world of spying. Not at all the knowing wink-to-the-camera Hollywood endings we have come to expect. A refreshing new look at an old hero.
A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Sherlock Homes is a character most people are very familiar with thanks to the movies and TV shows. But, as with James Bond, the original novels are very different. Whether your Sherlock Homes is Hollywood legend Basil Rathbone with his deerstalker and pipe, or Guy Ritchie’s action hero, the real Sherlock Homes is a different breed altogether. Introduced as a “consulting detective” in the first novel, A Study in Scarlet, we learn that Homes has spent years perfecting methods of criminal detection. These methods are a combination of the chemical, procedural, or the use of deductive reasoning. It is surprising to see that they are totally grounded in reality. Seeing Homes crawling across the floor studying footprints or taking hours to think about how a house could have been entered is a far cry from the superhuman crimebuster we know from films. It was a joy to see his methods being explained by Conan Doyle. The real Sherlock Homes is a refreshingly different from his cinematic counterparts as the real James Bond is from any of his onscreen incarnations. Well worth reading these for yourself and getting acquainted with the real Mr Homes!
Time and Again by Jack Finney
How could I not read this? The book that inspired one of my favourite stories, “Somewhere in Time” by Richard Matheson. This fantasy novel by the writer of “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” concerns our hero Si Morley, a man’s man of the 1950s, who is recruited by the government to be part of a top secret project – one that aims to perfect time travel by self-hypnosis. As he travels back to 1882 in New York, we are treated to an incredible display of world-building, as Finney recreates the details of life there in astonishing detail. One can imagine Finney himself went back in time to bring us this story, which of course has a bittersweet ending as most time travel stories do, because while he’s back in 1882, Si Morley falls in love…
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
I’d never read this classic piece of Americana. While sometimes the heavy accents got in the way, I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of the adventures of a boy in a small American town in the mid-19th century. Twain gives us a true insight into childhood, making his hero Tom a convincing protagonist. Adults could learn a lot about child psychology by reading this book. Twain tells the story with humour without ever being condescending toward his cast. And he spins a rattling good yarn!
The Elementals by Michael McDowell
McDowell was a popular horror author in the 1970s before Stephen King. It’s easy to see how influential he was on King himself, especially in his tale of small American towns or isolated communities under threat from a supernatural menace. The Elementals begins with a startling visual image – three houses on a secluded beach in the Deep South. One is empty; no-one ever goes inside for a reason. At the rear of this house a massive sand dune has built up that threatens to engulf the building. The houses belong to a rich, Southern family. But when a cynical New York cousin and his young daughter come to stay, the daughter ignores the warnings and climbs the sand dune, breaking a window pane in the house and letting the evil escape. A highly original premise with some genuinely creepy moments. My first exposure to McDowell, and certainly not the last.
The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
I’d read the reviews on this one, where readers said it was the most disturbing novel they’d ever read, that they hadn’t wanted to finish it but had forced themselves to read to the end. Gauntlet thrown. What I wasn’t prepared for was Ketchum’s stark, journalistic style. This is the story of a young girl and her even younger sister who are orphaned and sent to live with the woman who lives next door to the protagonist, a teenage boy. The woman is normal enough, even if she does lets the narrator and her own two sons drink beer and treats them like adults. But when the girls arrive, things turn nasty. The woman’s jealousy of the girls turns to hatred. She and her sons tie the girl up and subject her to physical and sexual abuse that just gets worse and worse. Allegedly based on a true story, the story is so grim that I had to stop reading for a while before going back to finish it. By the end, I felt like I had achieved… something. The narrator certainly does not take pleasure in the torture and becomes the instrument of vengeance in the third act. But I came away from this uncertain what to think. Part of me felt this was an important story, one that shows how a sadistic monster lurks in normal people, and how conformism lets these monsters escape. But part of me wondered if we needed to read about such graphic torture, and whether the novel went too far in trying to shock. Whatever it was, it was certainly a challenging read.
Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse
Not satisfied with that grim tale, I embarked upon what people have called a modern classic. Herman Hesse’s tale of a man who believes he was once a wolf intrigued me. The audiobook was read by Peter Weller, star of Robocop, whose soporific tones put me to seep more than once! The book begins with the son of a landlady telling how he met this peculiar character, the Stepppenwolf, whose name (Henry Haller) is a play on the author’s. Haller is unable to socialize properly, and leaves behind a journal. We then read the journal. At this point, the pretence the novel makes of being a story breaks down – Haller reads a book about himself that he finds, and reality breaks down completely with no explanation in Act Three. There were lots of great ideas – such as the idea that we are complex individuals containing many different personalities that change radically over time. But it read more like Hesse’s own philosophical tract than a story. That’s the problem with postmodernism for me. A story should be a story in my opinion. It’s better to teach by showing than by telling. I did enjoy the book. But it was way too clever for its own good. The story could have been told in half the time and said just as much.
Vittorio the Vampire by Anne Rice
This year I went to New Orleans for a few days. So what could I do but take a long a copy of one of Anne Rice’s vampire novels? My tour included the author’s old house in the Garden District. Having read her earlier book set there, The Witching Hour, it was a thrill to see the places in the novel for real. Vittorio was a different experience. I love vampire novels, and Anne Rice can write beautifully about them. This book also contains some beautiful prose. The story is simple – in Medieval Italy a young nobleman’s castle is raided by undead who kill his family. He falls in love with one of them who then turns him into a vampire. Then things get weird… He is obsessed with a painting of angels, and we see that in his confused state of mind the angels become real. They lead Vittorio through his adventures. The end. I wasn’t sure what to make of this. It felt like Rice was indulging her Catholicism rather than telling a real story. The point seemed to be that angels were real. But Vittorio could have been a much more interesting tale. It seemed a shame to waste all that research telling a story that was half-formed at best.
Chocky by John Wyndham
Confession number two: I have never read Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham’s most famous book. However, I have read a couple of his others (The Chrysalids, The Kraken Wakes) so I knew what to expect. Wyndham writes cosy disasters – some world-changing event happens in leafy middle England to middle class protagonists. In this, I was not to be disappointed. Chocky deals with an alien presence that possesses the narrator’s son. At first, it is dismissed as an imaginary friend, until the effect on the boy can no longer be ignored. Chocky is neither helpful nor harmful – it merely is. Wyndham takes a very simple idea and spins out a clever plot full of intriguing moments and exciting twists. It’s terrific to see something truly alien intrude into Middle England. This was made into a successful TV series in the 1980s. I will be rooting it out and watching it. Great fun!
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
I always like to read a Dickens book around December. It gets me in the festive mood. In this novel, we are in the French Revolution, and aristocrats are being sent to the guillotine by peasants who have seized control of France. Amid this turmoil, one innocent aristocrat, Charles Darnay, is imprisoned in the Bastille after coming back to France to help a friend in need. Enter Sidney Carton, a dissolute English lawyer whose life has been spent in drink and profligacy, and who happens to be an absolute double of Darnay. Like most, I knew the story, but Dickens’s superb storytelling made the Revolution a living thing. His characters are vivid and unique. Although a melodrama, Dickens’s style is never better than here. The final chapters are quite moving – especially the scene where a Frenchwoman who is a major revolutionary turns up at Darnay’s wife’s house, ready with a pistol to have her imprisoned, only to find her way blocked by the English maid Miss Pross, who valiantly defends her mistress. By turns comic, dark and very emotional, this is one of the best Dickens books I’ve read. A masterpiece of literature by one of the greatest novelists who ever lived.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
With Christmas fast approaching, I thought I would listen to the audiobook of a children’s story that has been widely praised. The Weirdstone is set in Alderly Edge in Cheshire, England – a place associated with legends of King Arthur and the wizard Merlin. Garner takes this legend and weaves round it an original myth of his own involving the titular stone and two children who spend the vacation there. Cue adventures with goblins, shapeshifters, dwarves and wizards who all want the Weirdstone. But where is it? Rip-roaring adventure stuff that is never dull for a moment, this is a great kids’ story. I was reminded of both Tolkien and CS Lewis, although the story lacks the depth of these two and it ends rather abruptly. Thankfully, there are a plethora of sequels!
So there you have it! My year in books. A year of ups and downs, but never a dull one. There were some great classics here as well as some unexpected gems. Maybe some of them will find their way onto your reading list next year. If so, tell me about it!