Some Books of the Year For 2021

Time for a quick look back over my reading year, to pick out some of my favourite reading from 2021’s book releases. While science fiction and graphic novels / comics will always be my favourites, I think it’s fair to say I have a fairly diverse reading diet, so this covers biography, history, science, fiction, crime novels, spy thriller, SF and graphic works. As usual I am sure I will be forgetting someone from the list, for which I apologise – normally I’ll notice a book on my shelf well after posting this and realise I meant to include it. If you’re considering buying any of these, where possibly please try using  your local bookshop rather than giving more money to Jeff Bezos.

The Island of the Missing Trees, Elif Shafak, Penguin Books

I’ve come to love Shafak’s works, and this year had the pleasure of meeting her when she visited to sign some books in our shop while she was in town for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Missing Trees is split between a father and daughter bereft of wife/mother recently in modern Britain, and 1970s Cyprus where young lovers are torn apart by the civil war, with a tree grown from a graft of a Cyprian tree also in the mix. If that sounds like it may be depressing, it isn’t: while it has sad moments and explores loss of both people and place, the exile’s life, it is also often uplifting and utterly beautifully written. I fell in love with her elegant, moving prose and finished this book with a deeply contented sigh.

The Lost Storyteller, Amanda Block, Hodder Studio

A debut novel, Amanda paid us a visit ahead of publication with advance copies of her book (as a bonus she was accompanied by an old colleague of mine who now works for the publisher, which was very nice). An adult woman has long excised her famous but long absent father from her mind, but she hasn’t really processed his departure from their family. A famous actor in his day, she is drawn into investigating why he really left them when a journalist asks for help in researching his disappearance (he didn’t just leave them, he vanished from public life), with the narrative wrapped around a small book of tales he wrote for her when she was a child. Beautifully done and emotionally satisfying, I think Amanda will be a new author to watch for.

Island Reich, Jack Grimwood, Penguin Books

I’ve read this author since his science fiction days (as Jon Courtenay Grimwood), and had to have a look at this standalone, WWII spy thriller. A safecracker and con-man is caught in 1940s Glasgow, and given the choice of the hangman’s noose or working for British intelligence, being dropped into the recently oocupied Channel Islands to play the part of a long-absent, fascist-friendly local lord to work his way into cracking a Nazi safe for secret plans, while a secondary plot involves disgraced former king Edward and Wallis (nee Simpson) fleeing the fall of France and being courted by the fascists of Spain and Germany (which he was clearly having fun writing). A cracking, fast-paced thriller.

City of Vengeance, D.V. Bishop, Macmillan Books

I’ve known David Bishop for many years – he teaches writing quite close to our bookshop, and I’ve known him through our comics connections, as he is a former editor of the mighty 2000 AD (which has launched many careers), so of course I was interested in his debut novel. Set in Renaissance Florence, this is a super historical crime novel, gripping story, exploring attitudes to vulnerable minorities (with echoes of today’s society), and a superbly realised feeling of the city and the time. Looking forward to the second book coming out in spring of 2022.

The Edge of the Grave, Robbie Morrison, Macmillan Books

Another debut prose work from an old comics chum – I’m sure some of you will know Robbie for his long list of comics creations, not least in 2000 AD. Here he introduces us to Glasgow in the early 1930s, and the first Catholic detective on a police force that is very blue-nose. In the Noir tradition our detective is also damanged by his experiences in the war, carrying his internal wounds with him as he investigates a body in the Clyde, taking in the low-life of the razor gangs to the high society of the city’s aristocracy, the great shipbuilding families, with a strong sense of place grounding the story.

Beyond, Stephen Walker, HarperCollins

For as long as I can remember Yuri Gagarin has been one of my heroes; posters of him and Neil Armstrong adorned my walls a a kid. I grew up in the shadow of the Space Age, and it has left a mark on me for life, so I had to read this new book on Gagarin and that heroic first manned space flight, which came out in time for the sixtieth anniversary of that world-changing event. Walker explores Gagarin’s life and that of the other cadre of young cosmonauts in detail, and the Soviet space programme, the immense engineering challenges, comparing them to their NASA counterparts, as they strive to be the very first in all the history of the world to step beyond our own world.

It’s unbelievably dangerous, heroic stuff, they really didn’t know what would happen to a human being in space – assuming they could even get them there safely, not to mention back again – and yet they did it anyway. Walker also explores the man, not just the myth – insights from fellow cosmonauts, friends and family let us see this young man, not just the epic hero, making it more touching and personal. Gagarin, who really did go “where no man has gone before.”

The Wolf Age, Tore Skeie, Pushkin Press

History has long been a passion, and Skeie’s book delivered in spades; a thousand years ago, and early English kingdom that has recovered from the devastating Viking wars of previous centuries is again repeatedly assaulted, people slaughtered, towns burned, alliances shift and change. It’s like something from one of the great Norse epics, and indeed Skeie begins with an overture about the final days of Snonri Sturluson, the man who wrote down so many of the sagas in Iceland, preserving them for us centuries later (while most of the warlords here also take warrior-poets with them who compose epic verses of their battles, history becoming myth almost as it happens).

As he points out you cannot understand the history of early England or Scandinavia (and other parts of Europe) without understanding this period and the interaction of Anglo-Saxons and Norsemen.It’s as gripping as any epic fantasy, but it actually happened.

Sentient, Jackie Higgins, Picador

In Sentient, Higgins explores the remarkable world of animal senses, each segment dealing with a different sense – touch, vision, hearing and so on. While most of us will be familiar with the idea that dogs can smell far more scents than our human nose can, or certain animals can see in ways we cannot, this delves far deeper into how scientists are researching some of the remarkable abilities of the other creatures which share the planet with us, from the incredible sense of touch used by the star-nosed mole to animals that can see in other wavelengths beyond what we can detect.

However, it goes further – Higgins then relates the research on each of these animals senses to the human experience, and how it compares to our own (spoiler, our senses are far better than we give ourselves credit for) and also how we can use this to help when our sense fail. More than that though, this is a book that restores that precious sense of wonder about the world around us, and that’s something always to be cherished.

Bumble and Snug and the Angry Pirates, Mark Bradley, Hodder Children’s Books

This was truly one of the most delightful finds of 2021 for me: I’ve found my beloved comics medium to be a rich one for younger readers, enticing even kids who are reluctant readers, or have reading problems, to devour books and entire series (we’ve had a lot of success with our graphic novel section for young readers). Mark’s debut was just a wonderful adventure of two friends, packed with humour, a giant balloon, a sea monster, a picnic, pirates and more (really, what more do you need?!), and an important message about friendship, kindness and being okay to explore your feelings. It also had me chuckling out loud repeatedly, and our younger regulars we’ve recommended it to in the bookshop have all loved it it too. Looking forward to the next book! (full review can be read here on the blog)

Putin’s Russia, Darryl Cunningham, Myriad Editions

I always look forward to Darryl’s new works – back in the Long Ago he was our virtual cartoonist in residence on the now sadly gone Forbidden Planet Blog, and I still recall being incredibly impressed with his first full-length work, Psychiatric Tales (which badly needs to be put back into print). In this new work he explores the life of Vladimir Putin and his rise to power in post-Soviet Russia, his years of corruption and abuse of power (and intimidation and worse to cover it up) stretching far back beyond his time as president or prime minister.

Given how much influence Russia under Putin’s vile, autocratic rule has had on the world stage (think not just the invasion of Crimea, but behind the scenes works such as massive disinformation and interference campaigns on political campaigns in the US, UK and more, or the assassinations carried out brazenly in other countries with utter contempt for laws and decency), this is an important and pertinent story, and again as with Billionaires or Supercrash, Darryl delivers a huge amount of complex research in the most accessible form, cementing for me his position as the UK’s leading non-fiction comics creator. (the full review can be read here in the blog)

Megatropolis, Kenneth Niemand and Dave Taylor, 2000 AD / Rebellion

Taking long-established characters and settings and putting them into alternate possibilities has long been an interesting way to explore different aspects of long-running series; DC has its Elseworlds (where we see what happens if Superman’s escape pod landed in the USSR instead of Kansas, or Batman as a vampire), and Marvel their What If series (recently adapted into an animated TV series).

Here Niemand and Taylor take the world of Judge Dredd and Mega City One, but it’s different, it’s a retro-future, a city of gleaming, Art Deco influenced styles, Taylor clearly delighting at being free to reimagine the Big Meg in this stunningly beautiful way (partaking of both Lang’s 20s masterpiece Metropolis as much as the Film Noirs of the 30s and 40s). Here Hershey is an investigative journalist, Cal is a corrupt detective, Rico – in normal Dredd he’s the judge’s clone brother who went bad – is the rare straight detective trying to fight crime and corruption, even in his own department, while Dredd himself is a shadowy, mysterious vigilante figure appearing from nowhere to hold those corrupting the vision of what the city should be to account. Gripping story, fascinating “what if?” moments and stunning artwork (the full review is here on the blog).

Beyond the Hallowed Sky, Ken MacLeod, Orbit Books

I always have a huge pile of books on the TBR (to be read) pile, but Ken has long been one of the few authors who bypassed that tottering Babel Tower of books to go straight to the top of the list when he has a new book out. This is the first in a new trilogy, set around fifty years in our future, mostly split between Scotland and a couple of distant worlds. We have a phycisist who receives a letter supposedly from herself in the future, which has mathematical proof of faster than light travel, which most ridicule.

We have explorers on a distant world beyond our own solar system, explorers closer to home on bases on Venus, and right on the Clyde, a new ship being built with a faster than light drive. I loved the idea of this vessel being built in a Clydeside shipyard, and MacLeod also conjures up a believeable future world split into different factions: Scotland here is independent and part of the Union, save for the Faslane base which England, now in an Alliance with the US, has held onto for their nuclear submarines (some of which boast this FTL drive to travel well beyond our oceans). Terrific narrative and, as always with Ken, some material for you to think about.

Blood and Gold, Mara Menzies, Birlinn

Mara is a professional storyteller, usually doing live performances, but here she has taken some of her stories into prose form (although we were fortunate enough to have her tell some of them live in our bookshop recently, and it was wonderful). Blood and Gold, which features illustrations from Eri Griffin explores both Scottish and African heritage, family, folklore and mythology, with teenage Jeda in a never-named city (which is clearly Edinburgh), dealing with not just the problems of growing into an adult, but losing her mother.

But her mother has left behind a trove of important stories to help her growing daughter understand herself and where she came from – and where she can go to next. But the sinister Shadowman follows, eager to seep into her misery and depression, to keep her from the vibrant glow of the stories, of her mother’s enduring love reaching out from beyond. It’s extremely emotional and caused me to tear up quite a bit, the raw emotions reminding me very much of my own grief and loss, but this brought me deeper into Jeda’s world, and the importance of storytelling as an integral part of what makes us human (I think lovers of Neil Gaiman’s work would fine much to enjoy here). Beautiful and moving, and also a good celebration of our cross-cultural heritage (the good and the bad)

Hummingbird, Salamander, Jeff VanderMeer, Fourth Estate

I’ve been reading Jeff’s remarkably unusual works since his early Ambergris novels (his collection City of Saints and Madmen is a good introduction), and am always looking forward to whatever he does next, safe in the knowledge that it is going to be thoguht provoking, unusual and hard to predict. In Hummingbird the skeleton of the story is pretty much the private eye type – a woman who works in security finds herself drawn to keep investigating something she’s told frequently not to, creating problems and danger at work and at home.

However, while accurate, that really doesn’t convey what Hummingbird Salamander actually is: a summary of narrative really doesn’t tell you much about any of Jeff’s books, I think – he’s one of those writers whose books you don’t just read, you experience. This is as much about atmosphere and very carefully considered wordplay as it is the actual narrative; as with many of his other books there’s an increasing sense of dislocation, of things being out of kilter, both the people and world around them becoming something other, different, odd. Intriguing, disturbing, unusual, and with a strong sense of the environment (and what we’re doing to it) woven through.

Falling

The king sighed deeply. So few are left, he thought, so few, the last of my troops surround this final redoubt, this last keep. Most have fallen and now lie still upon the earth; the enemy is at the gates, the deep, chill darkness closes over all we are and we no longer have the strength of our greener days to withstand it. A final charge and it shall overwhelm our tattered, broken defences. Again the king sighed and regarded his now ravaged, increasingly barren kingdom. We shall all soon vanish beneath the approaching darkness, he told his few remaining subjects, but, he told them, holding his head high, no darkness lasts forever. We shall rise once more and it will be glorious. The king of the tree made his solemn promise to his remaining leaves and turned from autumn to face the shadow of winter.

Reviews from the past: American Gods

Time to dig out another old review from my archive, this time by one of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman and his novel American Gods. I remember doing the event in Edinburgh (packed, standing room only) with Neil when this book came out and I’ve still got a nice signed edition he scribbled in for me afterwards. I can’t remember if this appeared on the Alien Online or not, I think it might actually date to my own first review site The Library of Dreams, back around 2001 or thereabouts. I seem to remember Neil had been wanting to write it for a while but had still been busy with a lot of his comics work and so this large prose novel had to wait, but it was worth the wait.

American Gods,
by Neil Gaiman,
published by Headline

American Gods begins simply enough with a man called Shadow, counting the days until his release on parole from prison. A few short days before he is due to be released he is taken to the warden’s office to be told he is being released early on compassionate grounds. His wife has been killed in a car crash, just days before he was due home. Worse is to come when Shadow attends the funeral and finds his wife had been sleeping with his best friend and had actually caused the crash by giving him fellatio while driving. As Shadow’s new start in the world crumbles around him he is followed by a one-eyed stranger called Mr Wednesday. Wednesday offers Shadow a job, which he refuses at first, but wearily agrees to after the funeral is over. He is not told what the specifics of the job are, but he does find himself in a bar, drinking Wednesday’s mead to seal the deal and fighting a drunken leprechaun called Mad Sweeney by way of an audition.

Thereafter Shadow travels across much of the land of America. Some of it and its inhabitants are recognisable, other parts and people are more like the dream imagery of America described in film, painting and literature. Shadow senses a great storm coming and Wednesday confirms that this coming storm is what their business concerns. After performing a successful con job at a bank to raise funds for their venture they begin seeking out some very odd people, who Wednesday arranges to meet at the House on the Rock, a bizarre attraction of run-down fairground oddities and architectural curiosities.

While riding the world’s largest carousel there, Shadow experiences an alternate reality – a dream perhaps, or a glimpse of shadow worlds – where he sees many of theses people they have collected in their real light. They are gods. Old gods. Gods who were brought across the great oceans by the many waves of immigrants from the Old World. Wednesday was brought to the Americas centuries before, in the beliefs of the Vikings who ventured to this strange, new land. His wolves and two ravens appear. He is Odin, the one-eyed gallows god. And he is seeking to gather together all the old gods in America because a storm is coming.

Although many of the Old World gods made the journey to the New World with the people of their old lands, they are fading away. America is not the most fertile ground for such beliefs, it appears. As the successive immigrants have settled down and assimilated themselves into American culture, belief in the old ways and old gods has diminished, until most are simply tales to be told to children. Without belief a god dwindles, weakens and fades. Some seek to exploit this weakness of the older gods.

A new generation of gods has sprung up. American gods. Gods of the media, the television, the Internet, pop music, Wall Street. These are the gods of the New World, and they do not wish to share it with the gods of the old. Driven partly by jealousy and partly by fear – the old gods, after all, are a reminder to them that even a god’s life is finite – the new gods will wage war with the old. They try to co-opt Shadow to join their ranks, as the gods of the media bring his television to life. Lucy speaks to him from an old re-run, trying to persuade him to come over to their camp. She finishes with a wink and an offer to show him Lucy’s tits, surely one of the more unusual lines in contemporary fantasy. Shadow refuses and is attacked by strange men-in-black – the realisation of America’s security services, they even have unmarked cars and helicopters – but is rescued by his dead wife, Laura, who he may have accidentally resurrected.

Wednesday sends Shadow for safety to stay with old friends, Mr Bis and Mr Jacquel, who run a small mortuary and funeral service, with their cat who takes a fancy to Shadow. Times are hard when no one believes in you, and so Anubis makes a living now as an undertaker. After leaving them, Shadow is sent to the relative safety of a small, idyllic heartland town of Lakeside. A seemingly perfect little town, immune from all the ravages of the real world affecting the towns around it, Lakeside is like Bedford Falls, the small-town American ideal. Of course, there is a dark reason as to why Lakeside is the way it is, as Shadow finds out, a sinister reason linked to the almost annual disappearance of an adolescent from the town. Even in the idyll of rural America, nothing is just as it appears. And still the war is coming. Wednesday is manoeuvring friends and foe alike, and not necessarily all for their own benefits. Shadow will face death, the underworld, dreams of the great native Indian Thunderbirds and battles with duplicitous gods, occasionally helped by his dead wife, leading to a conclusion which is unexpected and startling.

American Gods has been a cherished project of Neil’s, that he has been working on for some time. It has been postponed more than once, but the final 500 page plus novel is more than worth the wait. Alright, you all know I am biased towards Neil’s work. Guilty as charged. But I think anyone who reads this wonderful work of fantasy will being to see just why I rave about his writing so much. American Gods is an extremely clever piece of fantasy, mixing some wonderfully original storytelling with world mythology and folklore. This is not an uncommon theme in Neil’s writing, and of course, we have seen him use Odin and Loki before in the Sandman. But the juxtaposition of these brilliantly realised mythic archetypes from the Old World with the belief systems of modern America is the charm, which breathes life into this clay. Neil’s observance of America, its beliefs and how it sees itself are both affectionate and cutting. The idea that we create new gods without realising it, such as gods of the media or Wall Street, is intriguing – we all worship something after all, a deity, liberty, money, love, possessions. It echoes Grant Morisson’s early Invisibles episode where it is revealed that John Lennon now has all the attributes of a god.

The new gods represent this idea, that our beliefs may change, but gods will always be with us, because we create them ourselves, whether we are worshipping the dollar or a pop star. They’re not called idols for nothing after all. And when a god is no longer worshipped or remembered they fade slowly away, reduced to performing con jobs like Wednesday to get by as best they can, like a once-famous actor now scratching a living from commercials. Even gods can die, and this frightens the new gods even more than sharing America with the old gods. The old gods represent their own mortality. Worse, in our hi-tech, fast-moving, short-attention span world, belief in the new gods is far more fleeting. While Odin may have commanded worship for centuries, many new gods are discarded quickly, such as the sickly Rail Baron god. Not enough belief to go around for everyone, every god for themselves.

American Gods is one of Neil’s finest works to date. If you have not read any of his work before, this is an excellent starting point, as it needs no knowledge of his other material to understand. If you are familiar with Neil’s canon then you will be rewarded by little literary nuggets. The room in the House on the Rock, full of old coin-operated shows which is reminiscent of the arcade in Mr Punch. The girl with the multi-coloured hair and the dog, who may or may not be Delirium. As ever his work is littered with multiple references to other writers. Of course his beloved James Branch Cabell, but I’m sure I spotted references to, or influences of many others, such as Sheri S Tepper and Lord Dunsanay, to say nothing of the Frank Capra homage to Bedford Falls in the shape of Lakeside, which in turn becomes a homage to David Lynch’s skewed take on the hidden side of American small town life in Blue Velvet. If you are looking for dense, multiple layering of narrative and metaphor, then Neil’s your man. This is a work of first class literature, bursting with gorgeous ideas and characters, both original and those from our collective mythologies. Like any truly good piece of writing, it will change the way you view the ‘real’ world.