Friday, 14 January 2011

Top Five Books of 2010

Prompted by the inclusion of The Obverse Book of Ghosts inclusion in at least one reader's Top Reads of 2010, I thought I'd belatedly do mine, with the obvious proviso that I don't buy that many brand new books, so this is books I read in 2010, rather than the best books released in 2010.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke

It's a fantasy novel which is over a thousand pages long, it's filled with footnotes, and I see someone called it the 'adult Harry Potter'. I should have hated it - but I loved it, reading it first of all the books I had with me on our two week cruise round the mediterranean.

It's a sign of how good it is, and how much the prose and the sheer volume of clever ideas drag you in that I had no issue with carrying a book the size of a small bungalow round the 100 degree heat of Sicily and Rome. I loved to find myself sitting with Julie in some cafe or other in the shade, drinking cold beer and eating rolls jammed full of mozarella and ham, while Strange moved whole armies by magic in the Peninsular War and Mr Norrell sat and brooded.

The Box of Ho Sen
Anthony Skene (in Sexton Blake Wins!)

All the stories in this slightly tatty looking 1980s collection of Blake novellas is worth a read, but the best by far is Skene's 'The Box of Ho Sen'. If Blake is known at all to the public today, it's as a cut price and shoddy rival to Sherlock Holmes or (for those with unpleasant memories of the various Sexton Blake Library releases of the mid to late sixties) as a seedy investigator of blackmail and kidnapping.

Which is a real shame as he's so much more than that in his prime.

'The Box of Ho Sen' is an example of the very best of Blake, with Zenith the Albino in opposition and a suitably fiendish, convoluted and cunning plot for the reader - and Blake - to get his teeth into.

What makes it particularly stand out though, both in terms of Blake and in terms of my reading last year, is the character of Zenith who is nowhere better described and utliised than here.

"Sooner or later someone, whether it might be a police constable on the beat or his arch-enemy, Sexton Blake, the private detective of Baker Street, would succeed in arresting him and conducting him towards a police station. Then he would simply smoke one of the tiny opium cigarettes which he carried in a platinum case within his waistcoat pockets. Nobody smoked those cigarettes save himself, and one of them was marked by a crimson ring. That was death; and if all else failed and he saw that he was doomed to imprisonment, there was always that cigarette which he might smoke and thus obtain release. What did it matter? Only those who enjoy life fear death; and to Zenith life was a constant reminder of his abnormality."

You don't get that degree of layering in your Bond villains, do you? Perhaps I'm completely wrong, but give me an opera cloak and suicide fags over a third nipple or a white cat any day...

The Osiris Ritual - George Mann

I should think that amongst the most common reminiscences of a seventies childhood is mention of sitting on the settee on a weekend night, watching a double bill of a Universal and a Hammer horror movie. J and I both remember watching shadowy black and white Mummies and luridly colourful Draculas on a Friday night, sitting up on the settee, eating crisps and hiding behind our mums.

They just don't make horror movies like that anymore. Nowadays the movies are full of young girls being disembowelled and dead aliens dreaming of slaughter and mayhem from the bottom of a well, but back then it was heaving bosoms as far as the eye could see and every second film was either set in mittel Europe or in swinging London.

George Mann's Newbury and Hobbes books are the point at which the Hammer movies crash into the Universal ones by way of a steampunk highway. A mummy's curse is pure Universal, a slaughtered archaeologist sheer Hammer and the villainous Ashford is completely brilliant steampunk, a man-machine version of Callan, dripping gobbets of rotting flesh.

Wonderful stuff, to be continued in 2011 it seems!

The Bride that Time Forgot
- Paul Magrs

Reviewers of old used to talk about 'rich confections' and 'heady cocktails', gluttonous metaphors for novels so packed with magnificent incident and glorious wonder that you can almost taste them. That's te Brenda and Effie series of novels in a nutshell.

The Bride of Frankenstein (now a B&B owner) and her best friend, a witch, live in Whitby, sinkhole of sheer badness that it is, solving crimes, fighting evil and sending the minions of Hell back where they belong (underneath Whitby, it turns out). What's not to love?

This fifth book in a series which began with Never the Bride and gets better with each instalment was a present in December which I put to one side to savour over the holidays. Picking it up on the 28th of December I'd read the entire thing by the evening of the 29th (and it's not like I'm not busy at that time of year!).

Mental, metafictional and magnificient, this is another series I'd like to see continue for ever - and spread out to TV (with Annette Crosbie as Effie, please).

Space Captain Smith - Toby Frost

I love pulps, I love square jawed heroes and I love science fiction, so this tale of a square jawed pulp hero in space was never going to have to struggle to win me over. I'd read Space Vulture, a more deliberate homage to the pulps, early in the year and enjoyed it hugely, but the writing, wit and inventiveness on display here easily eclipsed that earlier read.

Skewering all sorts of sf standards in an affectionate manner, battering British cliches round the head and generally tweaking the nose of everything Smith comes in contact with - perfect summer reading for anyone who's sat through a pompous English movie from the thirties or yawned through the interminable dullness of 2001 : A Space Odyssey.

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