Books: Best of the Year for 2023

It’s that time again when I cast my eye back over some of my favourite reads of the year just gone, from science fiction to espionage history to biography to children’s picture books, and of course my beloved graphic novels (I don’t read quite as many as I did when I edited the Forbidden Planet Blog, but my comics DNA remains!). As usual, I am sure I will realise I’ve forgotten someone after I have posted this, but that’s usually the way!

And if you fancy trying any of these, please do consider buying from your local, Indy bookshop if you can, rather than the chains or the Giant Website That Shall Not Be Named (if you don’t have a local independent bookshop in your area, but would still like to support one, you can buy online via Bookshop.org)

Fiction

Lords of Uncreation, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Tor / PanMacmillan

The third and final part of Adrian’s gripping Final Architecture series, dealing with a future where the human diaspora is spread across the galaxy after the destruction of the Earth by the Architects, a mysterious, unknowable, unspeakably powerful race appears from hyperspace and “reshapes” planets, as if making celestial sculptures. Along with other races the survivors on other colonies live in constant fear of their return, and desperate measures are taken, exploring the very fabric of the reality of the universe. Again we see this from the eyes not of great heroes, but our mismatched crew of an old salvage vessel, caught up in politics, crime and galactic destruction.

Despite the size of the book, this is a fairly quick read, as it is so damned gripping and rides along at a terrific pace. Said it before and I will say it again, Adrian is one of the UK’s SF writers to add to your shelves, if you haven’t already, I recommend him regularly in our bookshop.

Starter Villain, John Scalzi, Tor / PanMacmillan

This was an utter delight to read – Scalzi is in his “let’s have fun” mode here. Charlie has had a run of bad luck – he’s relying on a temp job after losing his other work while looking after his ailing father, his marriage broke up, he is back living in the old family home with nowhere else to go, and his siblings want to sell it now their father has passed on. It’s just him and his cats against the world. Then he learns his estranged uncle has passed on, a billionaire and corporate titan, who fell out with his father after his mother’s death, and has never been in touch since.

Now Charlie has inherited his uncle’s business and must arrange the funeral, at which a succession of odd character appear, including some who take to attacking the corpse to ensure he is really dead. It turns out his uncle’s business as just one side of his life, the other was, well, supervillain, complete with a volcano lair on an island (waters patrolled by smart dolphins who want to form a union to get better working conditions). Oh, and his cats are genetically engineered spy cats his uncle slipped into his life to keep an eye on him. And his uncle’s many rivals now scent opportunity as Charlie has to learn the business. Along the way Scalzi manages potshots at the “tech bro” mentality and the idiocy of many of the super-rich (who all assume they must be incredibly clever if they are so rich, of course). This left me smiling.

Dragonfall, L.R. Lam, Hodderscape

I’ve known L for a while as one of our Edinburgh writers, so I was looking forward to this (she had me at the promise of “sexy dragons”!), and as a bonus we had a triple-header of women writers for an evening event at our bookshop, with L, Hannah Kaner and Anya Bergman (see next choices), which I had the pleasure of chairing (great event). This is the start if a new “romantasy” (romantic fantasy, a growing subgenre), which does something interesting and different with one of the most fabulous of mythological creatures, the dragon, and also gives us a compellingly-crafted bit of world-building, including a society with a different take on gender norms.

Godkiller, Hannah Kaner, HarperVoyager

Hannah was also one of our guests at out evening of women fantasy writers event, and I absolutely loved her debut. We have a realm where the royal family outlawed the many gods that existed, which were destabilising society, with gods of all sorts, from the mighty, like fire gods or ocean gods, to tiny, like a god of lost sandals, each with their icon and altars for worship (which fuels their existence), and while many toe the king’s law in public, in private many wish again for their gods. As conspiracies grow across a troubled land, in the best tradition we have a misfit bunch shoved together on a journey.

Hannah brings the characters to rich life, especially on the emotional front – you will really come to care for them. Despite often harsh, brutal elements, there’s also a warm strand of humour woven into it. I’ve just been reading an advance copy of the second volume, Sunbringer, which will be published in February 2024.

The Witches of Vardo, Anya Bergman, Bonnier

We had Anya as part of our trio of women fantasy writers, although this is more historical fiction with a wee smattering of (possible) magic. Drawn from surviving Norwegian court records of witch trials centuries ago, the main characters here are all real people named in those documents, and it will often make your blood boil to read it and realise that, although this is fictionalised, there were women with those names who were treated this disgraceful way by a patriarchal power-base terrified of the idea of women getting ideas above their station.

There’s just enough in there that you could explain some of the more unusual moments away, but equally you could also decide there is indeed some magic involved, the writer leave it to the reader. There have been some great “witchlit” novels in the last year or two, but this one stands out, not least for the historical trial records which underpin it.

The Boys in the Valley, Philip Fracassi, Orbit

I enjoy a good, creepy horror, preferably something that takes the time to build atmosphere, and Philip does that superbly well here – set in a harsh, rural, winter in the US, I was sent this in the middle of the summer, but I still felt those cold winds! The sheriff and his posse seek help at a Catholic orphanage during a snow storm, dragging a hideously injured man they shot earlier, a man covered in arcane tattoos cut into his flesh, a man who should be dead.

He and others had been carrying out some sort of dark ritual, including sacrifices, when the sheriff took them. When the strange man finally dies of his wounds, it is as if the evil in him seeps out into the orphanage and everyone there, like an infection, changing behaviours, unleashing darkness. Delightfully creepy, in the Exorcist vein.

A Haunting on the Hill, Elizabeth Hand, Sphere / LittleBrown

Hand, an acclaimed writer, is, appropriately, a multiple winner of the Shirley Jackson Award; here she is revisiting Jackson’s classic masterpiece, the Haunting of Hill House. Cleverly she side-steps the obvious sequel, instead this is a theatre group hiring the house in the modern era, only to find strange noises and sights and thoughts. Like the original it eschews cheap jump-scare tactics or gore, instead this is psychological terror and atmosphere. I love the original and I have to say I really enjoyed this – ideal for those looking for a creepy, haunting tale on the long, dark nights.

Red River Seven, Anthony Ryan, Orbit

I knew nothing about this book in advance, when the publisher sent me a copy to look at, and within the first few pages Anthony had me hooked right in. A man wakes up on a boat, with no personal memories. He still has knowledge and skills he learned, but nothing about himself – his name, if he had a family, anything of that nature. Others wake up on the ship, save one who appears to have shot himself just before they woke. Each appears to have different skills, as if someone had assembled them as a team, but again no personal memories.

Each bears marks of recent surgery on their skull and torso, and a tattoo with a name (each is given the name of a writer). The boat’s controls are sealed, it is on an automatic course to … somewhere. A radio comes to life, and an artificial voice gives them strict instructions to follow, and will not answer their questions. I won’t say much more because of spoilers, but this has elements of Cube, John Carpenter and even Jeff VanderMeer in its DNA; I found it totally gripping. (full review here)

Infinity Gate, M.R. Carey, Orbit

I’ve been reading Mike’s work since his comics writing days, and here he is doing something new for him – his first foray into Space Opera, with a big, widescreen, multiverse of a setting. In a world very like ours, near future, wars and exhausted natural resources and pollution and environmental collapse, a scientist in Africa has created a portal to parallel Earths – potentially the way to save the world, giving access to near limitless resources.

But there is already a vast confederation out there, of cultures spread across the multiverse, and they really don’t care for anyone else poking their nose into portal technology… Along the way Mike layers in some nice references to racism, bigotry, imperialism and environmental issues across these different but parallel worlds.

Mr Breakfast, Jonathan Carroll, Melville House

I’ve loved Carroll’s works for decades; highly respected by those in the know, and among many other writers, it is a mystery to me why he’s not more widely known. He has a remarkable talent for creating stories that come at you in interesting, different angles than most. Here he has Graham Patterson, a failing stand-up comedian, whose life is falling apart. After one final, poor show, he decides to quit, buy a stupidly large truck, and drive slowly across the US to his family on the opposite coast where he will take up a more mundane job, giving up his dream. On his way he stops overnight in a small town, and is taken with the art on display in the window of a tattoo parlour, prompting him to choose one of their designs.

What he doesn’t know is that this tattoo is special, it gives the wearer a glimpse into alternative versions of their own life, then choose one (or remain in their current life). It doesn’t offer an easy way out – for instance, you may see a version of you that is successful, happy, but that doesn’t mean that life will always be that way, because, well, life. Along the way he starts taking photographs, and these start to weave themselves into the multiple versions of his lives as he attempts to decide who he wants to be.

More Perfect, Temi Oh, Simon & Schuster

Temi gives us a near future in a world very much like ours, but more so, where almost everyone is linked to the Panopticon, a neural net that links not just computers, as we have today with the web, but minds, sharing ideas, even dreams – never be alone! Not everyone loves this idea, and of course it is also wide open to huge abuses, but just as it is seen as odd not to have web access in today’s society, this anti-Panopticon group is viewed as eccentric at best, as a threat to society at worst, and we will experience this world through the eyes of a young woman finally connecting (as was her desire for years) and a young man who has been isolated from it all his life by his dissident father. Shades of the Matrix, Inception and Bill Gibson are woven in with a fresh perspective from Oh (and with a rich seam of diversity too) – she’s a writer to watch, I think.

Ritual of Fire, D.V. Bishop, PanMacmillan

I’ve known David for years through our comics connections (he is a former Tharg, the editor of the legendary 2000 AD comic), and he is also a regular in our bookshop, so when he had the first of his new historical crime novels set in Renaissance era Florence, I had to have a look, and I was hooked. This is the third in the series, and sees our main detective-like character, Aldo, sent out into the surrounding countryside to patrol, sent away from the city, just as a series of gruesome murders of influential Florentines starts, all seemingly linked to an insane religious zealot of a monk who had wreaked havoc a few decades previously, before being put to death.

It’s compelling, with some truly gruesome ends, and David kept me guessing right up to the last few pages as to which way he was going to take it – reading so much I often sense where a story arc is going, but not here, and that was refreshing and welcome. Looking forward to book four this summer.

Viper’s Dream, Jake Lamarr, No Exit Press

When an advance copy of this arrived, I had to have a look – billed as a “jazz noir”, one of my colleague rightly commented, this one must be for you. We follow Viper’s life through a changing Harlem, from the 1930s to the 60s, and the changing scenes around him. Leaving his rural life behind he thinks he will become a great jazz musician, but it turns out he’s terrible, so instead, after a stint working in a jazz club, he becomes a heavy for the owner’s sideline in drugs supplied to the musical fraternity, rising in the ranks, befriending many famous names (people like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis appear as background characters).

It’s a short but atmospheric tale, watching the world and the music scene change around him as the decades roll past, while a personal history recurs again to prompt his own story arc through this. You don’t need to know jazz to enjoy this book, it is a solid, period Noir tale, but if you do like jazz, it’s a bonus. (full review here)

The Second Murderer, Denise Mina, Harvill Secker

“The Montgomery’s money was so old there was a rumour that some of it still had Moses’ teeth marks on it”

One of Tartan Noir’s great crime writing queens, Denise Mina, turns to Raymond Chandler, with a brand-new tale of his iconic Philip Marlowe, one of the most legendary gumshoes of all time. I really wasn’t too sure about this at first – normally I am not mad on a writer doing a deceased writer’s characters, but I know Denise wouldn’t try this unless she thought she could do it both well and with respect for the original material, and indeed she does.

I adore the Chandler novels, and yes, I loved this too – it felt exactly like having that character and world again, but maintaining Chandler’s feel while never slavishly copying, bringing something of her own style to it too. One for fellow lovers of Chandler and classic Gumshoe Noirs.

Graphic Novels

The Hard Switch, Owen D Pomery, Avery Hill

Owen’s previous graphic novel, Victory Point (also Avery Hill), was one of my books of that year, so when Avery Hill had their annual Kickstarter for upcoming new releases, this is one I jumped at backing. Very different from his previous book, this is science fiction, set on a run down, working spaceship scavenging wrecks in a universe where the material that allows faster than light travel is running out – when it is totally gone, people will be effectively stuck on the planet and its solar system they are on, so everyone is scrambling to get what they can then settle somewhere before it happens, while law and order is eroding. This has a real Firefly vibe to it, and again the artwork is a beautiful, clear line style.

Why Don’t You Love Me?, Paul B Rainey, Drawn & Quarterly

 

Back when I edited the Forbidden Planet Blog, Paul’s serial Why Don’t You Love Me? Was one we shouted out many times. Fast forward several years and D&Q produced this lovely, big hardback collection of Paul’s fascinating series, a brilliant comic strip that has you thinking it is one thing, then another, then another, slowly revealing layers upon layers – it’s original, unusual and really draws you further and further into it to see where it is really going. It has, rightly, been appearing on best of the year lists all over the UK and US, and I’m delighted that this veteran of the UK Small Press comics scene is getting such wider recognition for his unique style of comics.

Transitions: a Mother’s Journey, Élodie Durand, translated by Evan McGorray, Top Shelf

“I thought I was open-minded… The news of my child’s gender change hit me like a tidal wave, sweeping away all my certainties. Sweeping away the comfort of my tidy little life.”

The ongoing discussions, debates – and sadly sometimes screaming matches – over the issues of Trans identity in our media can sometimes obscure the fact that, when you look past ideologies, social expectations and norms (and often prejudices which many of us probably never even realised we had), much of it boils down to something very, very simple, something that in one form or another we all do: a person trying to figure out who they are, how to live, how to be comfortable in that skin. Durand takes a mother suddenly finding out her girl actually has found herself identifying as a male for some time, now becoming a Trans man.

There is the initial shock and surprise, the mother wondering how this happened, did she do something wrong somehow? But then through a mixture of musings and performing her own research, she does what any good parent does – she tries to understand so she can support her child. A compelling mixture of informative and compassionate.

Alison, Lizzy Stewart, Serpent’s Tail

In lesser hands, this story of a now-famous artist recounting how as a young, naïve woman she met a famous, much older artist and fell into his orbit would be one where it was mostly concerned with the older, more sophisticated, experienced man taking advantage of a younger, less worldly woman, but Alison is far more nuanced. Although it doesn’t shy away from looking at that aspect of the relationship, it also explores a genuine relationship and romance, despite the age and social difference, and the way she is slowly encouraged to learn more about art, then develop her own, part of the path that lead to her later becoming an acclaimed artist in her own right.

It’s a fascinating tale, also an interesting take on that subject of the older artist and younger muse/lover, and one which I am glad to say does not relegate her to just being that, but explores her as an actual person and artist.

Big Ugly, Ellice Weaver, Avery Hill

When we’re younger, especially in our teens, we often think we’re clueless, that everyone else seems to know what they want to do with life, how to act in most situations, unlike us, but hey, when we are older, we’ll have it all figured out. Then, of course, we find out differently, and we realise actually although part of us still thinks others have a handle on life, unlike us, really they’re mostly thinking the same as us. Ellice creates a story of two siblings, sharing a home as adults after one goes through a rough time, that family dynamic of both feeling and wanting to be needed and help while sometimes resenting being needed, of casting back to youthful incidents that somehow you’re convinced are part of what marked your present, adult self, if only this had been different, if someone had done that instead of this your life today would be so much better…

It’s very recognisable stuff to many of us, while Ellice’s unusual art style reminds me (pleasantly) of stills from a cool animated film, with a nice mix of intimate panels and the odd double-page splash, drawing you in.

Non-Fiction

For The Love of Mars, Matthew Shindell, University of Chicago Press

The Red Planet has fascinated humanity for millennia, from deciding it was a sign from the God of War in antiquity, to early science fiction convinced life existed there, to our modern era where we have been mapping and exploring our near-neighbour. While this is a good popular science read, it is also much more – Shindell covers our scientific explorations and knowledge gained of Mars, but he also takes pains to put the planet into a cultural context, what it has represented to humans in our culture as well as our science, which makes this more human and approachable, and all the more interesting.

Making It So, Sir Patrick Stewart, Gallery / Simon & Schuster

I don’t read a lot of biographies, but, well, this is Patrick Stewart… Obviously there is the very important Star Trek element to this, but the other decades of his life are also compelling reading, from a childhood in a small town in rural Yorkshire, on the edge of poverty (outdoor toilet, hiding with his mum when the rent man came to call) through to being bitten by the acting bug, slowly realising that yes, actually working class lads from Yorkshire can go to drama school, not just the posh folks, the Old Vic, landing his dream job at the RSC, starting to get film work and more.

There’s a strong sense of humour running through it all, and he’s not shy of turning that humour on himself at some points (a couple of times it put me slightly in mind of Spike Milligan’s memoirs). Through all of it shines a love of storytelling, especially with Shakespeare, and the sense of a man who realises how fortunate he has been and is enjoying that life. (full review here)

Wise Gals, Nathalia Holt, Icon Books

This is a fascinating book about a fascinating, and often hidden, subject – espionage. The women here all served in the early incarnations of the US Intelligence services, during the scramble to create such departments as WWII raged (some served as spies and resistance leaders behind the enemy lines, risking torture and death), and then helped to set up the new CIA after the war. That in itself would be compelling reading, the tugs and pulls of war, politics and ethics all clashing, and the women themselves ranging from rural, small-town gals to sophisticated society ladies who spoke multiple languages.

What they had in common was a determination to do a good job for their country, and the bravery to see it through – although this also brings them smack into the incredible sexism of the era – they don’t get the pay or promotions or respect male counterparts do, despite often being as good or better at what they do, so they use their intelligence gathering training to construct data on why women are so important to the CIA to campaign for their rights. This is history, politics, culture and feminism all in one, absorbing read.

Camera Man, Dana Stevens, Atria Books

I’ve loved Buster Keaton’s astonishing silent comedy films since I was a child, watching them with my dad (we both still enjoy watching them!), so this was always going to grab my attention. But Stevens hasn’t created just a simple biography, although this does take us through Buster’s life, from childhood on the vaudeville stage, to the new medium of cinema, to his old age, dispelling myths along the way (such as him effectively disappearing into a bottle when his principal movie stardom faded, despite the fact he was very active in a number of fields for decades after this era).

What she has done is take his life and career, but also use it as a way to look at how entertainment, culture and society all changed across Buster’s lifetime, from the late Victorian period to the 1960s, how the newly evolving technology of film affected popular culture, how people like Buster innovated in that embryonic medium, through to the rise of the corporate studio systems, and to the emergence in the 50s and 60s of TV, which revived interest in these almost-lost silent classics. It’s as fascinating for those insights as it is for reading about the life of one of the first, great movie stars. (review here)

Children’s & YA Books

Bumble and Snug: the Shy Ghost, Mark Bradley, Hodder Children’s Books

I absolutely loved Mark’s Bumble and Snug series, and have been recommending it constantly in our wee bookshop, and am delighted to say quite a few of our younger readers have been just as delighted with them! In this third volume our bestest friend Bugpops are preparing for a magic show, when they befriend a ghost – but, as the title suggest, the ghost has a crippling shyness, and the thought of trying to do something in front of people is very scary, so of course they try to help them.

As with the previous books, there’s a lovely wee adventure here, a lot of humour, but also again an underlying theme of friendship and trying to be kind to others, to understand feelings, that we have them and so do others around us – it’s a good message for young readers to learn, but mostly as with the first two books, the main thing I took from this is just pure joy.

100 Tales From the Tokyo Ghost Cafe, Julian Sedgwick and Che Kutsuwada, Guppy Books

I had the pleasure of working with Julian and Chie at their event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last summer, following their previous collaboration, Tsunami Girl, which likes this is an intriguing mixture of both prose and manga. As with Tsunami Girl, the two forms overlap, compliment and indeed enhance the other, the manga performing some storytelling tricks that prose cannot, and vice versa, giving a very rounded view into the characters and the world(s) they explore.

Drawing on famous Yokai tales of Japanese spirits, folklore and myths, our main characters – avatars of the authors – are travelling through Japan to research these tales, each leg of the journey opening up other tales, but with a connecting narrative thread running throughout. There are even some rather lovely nods to characters from Tsunami Girl (you don’t have to read that to get this, but it will add to your experience if you have), in a book which presents rich, Japanese folklore in a very accessible manner, but also in one which is often deeply emotional and personal too.

Mexikid, Pedro Martín, Guppy Books

After chatting to some lovely folks from Guppy Books at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in the summer, they very kindly sent me a copy of their edition of Pedro’s autobiographical graphic novel, Mexikid, and I am so glad they did! We’re back in the 1970s, with his large family (eight kids!) in a busy, busy household, and about to become more crowded as they are packing up for a road trip south of the border, back to Mexico – their abuelito, grandfather, something of a legend in the family, is going to be coming back with them to the US.

What follows is part family history, but also a gentle exploration of both Mexican and American lifestyles and cultures, and events which shape families and individuals, all delivered in a wonderfully warm, engaging and often very funny way, with much of the humour coming from a child’s point of view, and the tangled nature of family dynamics (something anyone from any culture can identify with!).

Sam Francisco, King of the Disco, Sarah Tagholm, Binny, Rocket Bird Books / Barrington Stoke

Oh but this picture book had me smiling and laughing – we finally find out what cats do when they are out all night long, and it turns out it is partying as DJ Sam Franciso spins the most awesome tunes around! Of course this does keep some others awake, including the street’s grump, Buzzkill Bill, who unleashes his dogs on the cat rave. Except the dogs join the party, as does everyone else!

Whose Dog Is This?, Andrew Sanders and Aysha Awwad, Macmillan Children’s Books

I loved Andrew and Aysha’s previous picture book, Where Has All the Cake Gone?, and this features the same father and young son, and a similarly tall tale as the boy seems to be inventing ever-more elaborate excuses to explain his naughty behaviour, which becomes ever more imaginative and convoluted (including stealing top secrets and the intervention of a brilliant spy dog, no less! It builds to a crescendo that, like the previous book, leaves you wondering if it was really all made up as an excuse, or if there was just a bit of truth to it, leaving you with a huge smile. I’ve read both this and the previous books at our regular Under Fives Storytime, and they went down well.

Rose Wolves, Natalie Warner, Top Shelf

This is a deceptively simple, beautiful tale, told entirely without words, the art carrying all of the story here. A young girl finds an unusual flower in the forest, a flower which blooms magically into an unusual creature, the Rose Wolf. The animal is missing a leg, just as the wee girl is missing an arm, and the two quickly bond, leading to an adventure to find out where they belong in the world around them. Reminding me a little of Slade’s Korgi series (also a wordless, all-ages comic), this is an enchanting, gorgeous, warm delight for both younger readers (the wordless nature makes it especially suitable for any with reading problems) and adults.

Ning and the Night Spirits, Adriena Fong, Flying Eye Books

Ning has trouble making friends with the other children in his village, and also wonders why the villagers always light lanterns to scare away night spirits. It isn’t long before he goes exploring and find he can make friends, starting with the night spirits in the forest. This is an utterly beautiful work, part picture book, part graphic novel in style, with the usual high standards from Flying Eye. Colourful, enchanting and gorgeous, this is ideal for those who adore Studio Ghibli.

Monster Support Group, Laura Suarez, Flying Eye Books

Channel some of your inner Addams Family with this gorgeously ghoulish tale of young Lowell – 12 years old and worrying about body changes. No, not just the usual ones, Lowell is turning into a werewolf!! He finds the local Monster Support Group where they “don’t judge witches by their warts, nor ghouls by their groans.” It’s a lovely little comedy-horror about growing up, changing, learning to be comfortable with yourself and finding the people who will accept you as you are, all with that Addams Family / Tim Burton twist to it. Made me chuckle!

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.