I read a lot. I read so much, it's a wonder I'm able to write anything. But I started out as a reader, not a writer, and I continue to be a reader first and a writer second. I think if there ever comes a day when those are reversed, by life will be less interesting, because no matter how much I enjoy living in my own imagination, it can't compare to living in the imaginations of many exceptional writers. I read a lot of terrific books in 2015. In fact, this year marked the first year I read more books on Kindle rather than in print, largely necessitated by my travel schedule. Let's face it. It's far easier for me to carry a single iPad instead of a box of books. It's pure logistics. So here's my list. Not all of them were published in 2015, but I read all of them in 2015 and it's my list and I can do what I want with it.
So which ones were standouts for me?
Let me first begin with what I'm calling the Ghost Quartet. These are Little Sister Death, Head full of
Ghosts, The Boy Who Drew Monsters, and The House of Small Shadows.
Little Sister Death by William Gay was published posthumously in 2015, but was probably written twenty years ago. It's the story of a writer who moves his family to Tennessee to chase a ghost story and then, you know what happens, gets in over his head. But its so beautifully written you don't even care if its sort of Amityville-esque. I probably never would have read this had the author's name not come up in a conversation I was having with David Schow over drinks this summer. I'm hugely glad I read it.
Everyone's been electronically shouting about A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. It's a novel about a possession and how a young teens possession was made into a TV show and how that experience effected the entire family. It's a story within a story, which I love. The tension is ratcheted throughout and Paul really nails the POV of the young girl protagonist. Just nails it.
The Boy Who Drew Monsters could be the American cousin to the next book- The House of Small Shadows. Keith Donohue ingeniously plots a novel wherein a child seemingly can't stop drawing monsters which makes his parents think he might be crazy. Reviewed by none other than Peter Straub for The Washington Post, the atmosphere of the novel is compared to Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, and The Haunting of Hill House. I have to agree with Peter and wait until you find out why he's drawing. I mean, that's what you want to know when you read the title, right?
The fourth of our Ghost Quartet is Adam Nevill's The House of Small Shadows. It's a very crafty pastoral novel that brings to mind Shirley Jackson. And there is a haunting, but its such a clever and complex haunting I never say what happened next coming. It's another story within a story, and the pay off is wondrous. I'm a huge Adam Nevill Fan and read everything he writes. If you liked this also consider reading The Ritual and Last Days.
The Death House by Sarah Pinborough felt a lot like these other novels, but it lacked a ghost. Instead, it had this ethereal claustrophobic quality similar to Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. The book is a romance at its heart-- a first love romance -- and the ending is probably the most powerful ending of any book Sarah has written. Terrific job, Sarah!
I was eager to include The Lost Level by Brian Keene. This thin tome couldn't be more different that the previous five books, but it brought me back to old Edgar Rice Burroughs novels with the feeling of around the corner expectation I experienced in Arthur C. Clark's Rendezvous With Rama. This first foray into The Labyrinth makes me eager for future novels. Takes me back to my boyhood.
And now for a non-fiction interlude. Yes, I read non-fiction as well. The Telling Room by Michael Paternti, or its full title -- The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese -- is the tale of the author's relationship with a larger than life cheese maker named Ambrosio. It's about perception, how events change perception, the loss of innocence, a Castillian blood feud, and the futility of harboring grudges. The book is both entrancing and extravagant in its descriptions leaving me feeling as if it was I who traveled to Spain. Plus, there's wine and cheese galore. What's not to like about that?
Now back to fiction where I can talk about a first novel published by a small press that probably no one read, which is really too bad, because The Whisper King by Wil Radcliff should be on everyone's best of list. You know those shadows in your room that scared you when you were a kid. Well, what if those shadows were real and what if they were coming for you and what if when they got you they took you to another dimension for a reason you won't ever see coming. Yeah. That's this book.
Talk about claustrophobic, then read Nictophobia by Christopher Fowler. It's a haunted house novel but its not. It's more than that. Sure, the Shirley Jackson comparisons can be made for sheer atmosphere, but this is such an inventive treatment on the idea of light and dark that this novel will stand out for quite some time. Let me ask you this: to what extent would you change your life to ensure that those you loved remained alive?
Andersonville by Ed Erderlac is about the horrible conditions of the real life Civil War prison camp where Union Soldiers were lucky to survive each night. Add to this real life horror a secret mission, voodoo, magic, and the supernatural. Erderlac has woven this rich and complex tapestry into a masterful quilt of violence, spit, and rage. I actually blurbed this novel and said: “Andersonville is a raw, groundbreaking supernatural knuckle-punch. Erdelac absolutely owns Civil War and Wild West horror fiction.”
The best Military Sci Fi I read in 2015 definitely goes to William C. Dietz's Andromeda's Fall. I first read Legion of the Damned when I was stationed at Fort Bragg a lifetime ago. This is a return to that world with a strong broken female protagonist. With all out balls to the wall warfare, a suitable amount of intrigue, and The Legion of the Damned (imagine the French Foreign Legion a thousand years in the future whose brains and souls are now embedded in robotic machines), this is the first book of a slamming trilogy.
I've bad a secret bromance with Ernest Cline ever since he wrote Ready Player One. The guy must spend many secret hours in my head because everything he writes seems as if he's thinking to himself, what am I going to write for Weston next. Armada is The Last Starfighter meets Dungeons and Dragons meeets Star Wars with a little Enders Game thrown in. Alex Rogan--I mean Zach Lightman-- begins the novel seeing a space ship out his high school window, something all of us wished we'd done, especially me sitting in Ms. Hardaway's geometry class. It's really an incredible ride. Probably the best thing I read this year. I rarely go back and read novels, but I'm looking forward to going back and reading this one if only to sooth and satisfy my inner geek. Or I might just get this as an audio book. I hear Wil Wheaton did the reading for this--yeah!
So that's my Best of List of the books I read. If you haven't read any of these, give them a try. If this old kid from a trailer park on the edge of the universe likes them, chances are you will too.
Probably the best book I haven't read was Neil Gaiman's Trigger Warning. I've heard him read two of the stories from that book and they are incredible, especially the story called July (is that right?). I think I want this as an audio book if he's reading it. If not, I'll settle for the hardback. I just checked! Yes! He narrated it. Okay, so I'll probably get both and talk about it on next year's list.
Speaking of next years list, I already know that John Irving's Avenue of Mysteries will be on it. Such a spectacular novel, I'm actually holding back finishing it so I can savor the ending. This could possibly be the best book he's ever written, which is saying a lot considering A Prayer for Owen Meany, The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, and Dark Night at Twisted River are such amazing tomes.
Now get out there and read something.
Maybe even something of mine.