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Friday, 22 February 2013

Best And Worst Books I Read In 2012

[Sorry this is all text; I will add some pretty pictures later.]

Ok, well I’ve sort of done my best and worst films of 2012, so now it’s time for the books. But before that, I’m writing a few days before the Oscars winners are announced and looking down the nominations I see that once again I have not seen any films on the list. I even somehow managed to miss the mini-Simpsons short which is nominated in Best Short Animated Film; but seeing as I love The Simpsons [the first ten years or so, at least], I hope this wins in its category. Then it might be on the telly again!

Right, to the issue of the day. My best novels of 2012; I’ve sorted them into rank, with 1) being the best. Again, please note, these novels weren’t all published in 2012, they were just published in a limited edition in my brain in 2012. Here we go. My favourite novel that I read in 2012 was;


1)      THE DEAD ZONE [1979] by Stephen King. Unusually for a Stephen King title, I didn’t know a great deal about this before I read it; neither had I seen the film adaptation. There’s a link here > See all my reviews where there’s a long and spoiler-ridden review of mine for the book. THE DEAD ZONE is a great book, and the psychic supernatural stuff in it isn’t necessarily [NOTE TO SELF: learn how to spell] the best thing about it. Superb writing and excellent characterisation here. It is certainly among the top notch of King’s novels I have read, and I even read a fair chunk of it after a drinking session, when I usually forget how to read, such was its excellence. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys good writing.


2)      MOONFLEET [1898] by J.Meade Faulkner. I was first given this book to read at school in English, and, like most books at school, I didn’t like it. Boring, old-fashioned, can’t be bothered to read it. But something must have stuck, and over the years I found myself occasionally thinking about it, and when I saw a falling-to-bits copy in a charity shop I snapped it up and left it on my shelf for five years. Last year I finally read it; what an exciting, dramatic, compelling boys-own adventure story! The plot concerns a young boy and how he gets mixed up with smugglers and pirates treasure in the English coastal village of Moonfleet. It is an absorbing novel, and reading it made me feel like an excited boy again, instead of an old grumpy bugger. Very highly recommended, to boys of all ages.


3)      A WRITER’S LIFE [2011] by Eric Brown. This is a short [107 pages] novel masquerading as science-fiction, but in reality has tendrils of Lovecraftian horror throughout. It tells the story of Daniel Ellis, a writer and prolific reader who comes across a couple of books of Vaughan Williams, an author whom Ellis had not previously heard of. Ellis finds much to admire in the novels, and seeks out more by the author, slowly unravelling a mystery connecting three writers from different periods, and a bit of research and a series of coincidence soon guide Ellis to Williams’ isolated cottage, where local myths of strange events and hauntings abound. Will Daniel Ellis discover the truth, or will he find too much? This is very good, very readable and compelling and had me trying to guess the mystery, and I thoroughly enjoyed the journey of it. It’s a perfect book to get pulled into, and you could read it in one sitting.


4)      OF MUSCLE AND MAGIC [Published 2012] by Jonathan Strickland – Yes, this one’s by my friend Jonny, but wait a minute, it’s not a shameless plug [well, ok, it is a bit]; this short novel has made it into my top five on its own merit. The book was called THE TERROR ON THE ISLAND OF PAGZUIRE when I read it, and it takes the form of a classic sword’n’sorcery tale in the style of Fritz Leiber or Robert E Howard. It reminded me very much of Michael Moorcock’s 70’s novels, Corum, and Hawkmoon and all that; exciting, action-driven easy to read fantasy. OF MUSCLE AND MAGIC is about the same size as those Moorcock novels too, at around 40,000 words. The story concerns a demon who is devouring hearts, and the warrior Calin who attempts to destroy it. It is action-packed and is full of bright characters, sarcastic demons, imaginative monsters and real-ale drinking. It is only available as an e-book on Amazon or Smashwords for a dollar or two, but Jonny has very kindly put half of it [self-contained] on Smashwords for free. Why not download this for free, and see what you think. Truthfully, it could do with a little polish to make it gleam, but the occasional spelling mistakes and typos do not get in the way of the fantastic story. I loved it!



5)      THE WOMAN WHO WENT TO BED FOR A YEAR [2012] by Sue Townsend – I have loved Sue Townsend’s books since I was about twelve and first read THE SECRET DIARY OF ADRIAN MOLE AGED 13 ¾ . THE WOMAN WHO WENT TO BED FOR A YEAR is witty and clever social commentary; a fictional look at popularity and a celebrity-obsessed society. Mum Eva, after sending her twins off to University, after years of looking after them, feels tired and goes to bed, and decides to stay there and see what happens, relying on her family and complete strangers to see to her needs. She soon becomes a local celebrity, and it seems everyone wants a piece of her, when all she wants to do is have a good lie down. Funny, relavant, insightful, realistic, and humane. It’s not the best Sue Townsend [the ADRIAN MOLE series or THE QUEEN AND I are her best work; fantastic stuff], but it’s well worth a read.


And there we have my five novels of 2012; now for the bad books I read. I don’t really believe that any book is really terrible and a waste of time, so these aren’t worst books, as such, more disappointing ones. Often even a really bad book can be instructive to a writer. It can tell you how NOT to write, and it’s often a huge boost to read something [especially by a big-name author] and think, “That’s crap. I can write better that.”. It’s inspiring; if they managed to get that crap published, then there’s hope for you yet. It’s also good karma to check reviews of bad books on the interweb, and when you see that others too thought that particular book not very good, you can get the satisfaction of being correctly able to distinguish between good writing and bad.

The most high-profile “bad book” I read last year was ODD THOMAS by Dean Koontz. Again, there’s a lengthy review on my Amazon page, but briefly; it’s clichéd, slow, meandering, and full of just plain bad writing. Not  bad writing in the sense of unskilled, but bad in the sense that Koontz is trying too hard to impress. His sentences, his dialogue in particular is ridiculous and pretentious; it is some of the most grammatically perferct yet viscous and difficult prose I’ve ever encountered, like reading treacle. Read this;

"The air flash-dried my lips and brought to me that summer scent of desert towns that is a melange of superheated silica, cactus pollen, mesquite resin, the salts of long-dead seas, and exhaust fumes suspended in the motionless dry air like faint nebulae of mineral particles spiralling through rock crystal."

Woah, right. What a sentence! What about dialogue; read this, say it aloud;

"I've listened with my heart for so long I've periodically had to swab earwax out of my aortal valve."

Who talks like that in normal conversation? Do you talk like that? I bet you don’t. It’s just too clever, or it thinks it’s too clever. This is not just one pretentious character who speaks like this, but the whole bloody lot of them in the book. For me, it killed any realism; I had to struggle to finish the book. Incidentally, the story concerns a bloke who can see dead people, and is barely interesting as it is, without the awful prose to wade through. But what do I know; ODD THOMAS has become one of KOONTZ’ most popular characters and he has written half a dozen sequel novels, with a feature film due out sometime shortly. On Amazon or Goodreads, it gets potty reviews calling it the best book ever; there are some nay-sayers like myself but in general they are shouted down by the masses.

It’s not that I dislike Koontz. I have read and really enjoyed MIDNIGHT, THE TAKING, LIGHTNING, THE VOICE OF THE NIGHT, HIDEAWAY, MR MURDER and more. But it seems in his more recent novels he has changed his voice to this awful, dragging, difficult style. I started LIFE EXPECTANCY a few years ago and couldn’t finish it; I have half a dozen or so of his fairly recent books sitting on my bookshelf, as yet unread. I don’t think I’ll be trying them anytime soon. Yet ODD THOMAS would have sold shedloads, and continues to do so, especially with a film coming out. Well, fairplay to Koontz, but ODD THOMAS was most definitely that, ODD!

 Well, that turned into a bit of a rant, but never mind; prime blog material.

I read a critical book on fantasy novels last year; MODERN FANTASY:THE 100 BEST NOVELS [1988] by David Pringle. The 100 novels that Pringle selected were an interesting list, very eclectic and varied, and unusual choices. The problem was, that the short piece [1-3 pages] on each book told you the entire plot, often including the ending, and discussed them in a needlessly highbrow and subtextual way. There were books there that I may have read at some point, but now Pringle has told me the plot, I may not bother. I really like books about books, but this one was really disappointing.


I read a number of trashy creature-feature novels every year; nature on the rampage, killer bugs, fish, scorpions, budgies etc, that kind of thing. They are often not very good, but I’m fond of them. Anyway, this year was a bad year for creature-features; THE CATS by Nick Sharman [1977] has an MOD-backed experiment into a new bacterial weapon go awry. The bacteria is injected into test-subjects, a laboratory full of cats, which, when the temperature rises, begin to turn into mad, crazy, but highly intelligent carnivorous pussies. Before you can say “Whiskas”, those couple of dozen animals have somehow turned into thousands of the furry blighters and go on the rampage. Cue vignettes of caricatured characters who get killed by the cats, then larger scenes of full-on action where vast oceans of cats gain ground against helicopter bombings and flame throwers (!), climaxed by a quick but drawn-out ending that equally makes little sense. Sharman appears to know or care little for cats as they are entirely lacking in any character or feline traits. The vast hordes of creatures he writes about are entirely interchangeable; he could have written of dogs, foxes, frogs, or rabbits with very minimal changes. I got the impression that Sharman didn’t actually like or respect cats much, and chose his “creatures” simply because they sounded so similar to RATS, which indeed they could very easily have been. Sharman’s human characters also are stereotypes, with questionable motives, and even more questionable dialogue, and I found it difficult to differentiate between them. In fact, I just generally found this book difficult; it is full of action, yet boring, and at a slim 160 pages, seemed to take ages to read.

I first read THE PIKE [[1982] by Clifford Twemlow] when I was still at school, and enjoyed it. It’s a novel [of only about 45,000 words] that is best read in your teens, and perhaps kept there. Where something like THE RATS retains its power and depth, THE PIKE, unfortunately, has lost its bite. Story; something is attacking and killing swans, fishermen and tourists on Lake Windermere. Surprisingly, bearing in mind the title of the book, this turns out to be a giant pike. A journalist, a trio of adventurers and a Scottish stereotype join forces to hunt it down and destroy it, while local traders try to hamper their efforts with a few fisticuffs. This is JAWS with flaws; this is basic, unimaginative story-telling. Exposition-heavy attempts at character are made, but in the end the players are one dimensional, and interchangeable; only the giant Scot, Ulysees, is at all memorable, and the climactic finale turns out to be both a bit of a cheat, and a damp squib. One event, on the final pages shows a bit of life, but it’s all too little, too late.

THE PIKE isn’t really a very good book, yet I am quite fond of it. It reminds me of hunting through piles of paperbacks on windy market stalls, and finding a book such as this, would give me a happy delight. I rather liked this as a teenager, and this time round I read it in less than a day and on holiday in the Lakes, hoping for extra atmosphere, which I didn’t receive. Oh well, not all killer fish books can be brilliant, can they?

The cover of THE PIKE proudly promises “Soon To Be A Major Film”; alas, it was not to be, despite celebrity author Twemlow and star Joan Collins trying to rustle up the funds for it.

Blimey, I’ve waffled on about books for 2200 words. I could have been farting about with my novel in that time. Congratulations if you’re still reading. Curiously, have any readers [curiously, have I got any readers?] got any particularly bad books to unreccomend. And yes, I know I can’t spell recommend. Although I may just have. Oh-kay, Next Time Gadget...


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