Friday 4 January 2019

The best of the best - my top five reads of 2018

It's become something of a tradition here to round up the best books I've read each year - so as 2018 shuffles off into the distance, here's the top five books I enjoyed during the year. 

I rate the books purely according to 2018 being the year that I read them. It doesn't matter to me what year they were released in, though I don't include books I might have re-read having enjoyed them in previous years. There is no particular order to these - but I thoroughly enjoyed them all. That said, the last book in the list - well, that one particularly should be under consideration for awards. If you click on the link at the bottom to an audio reading from it, you'll hear why. 

Happy reading, folks - and may 2019 bring you many, many great books. 

The Paper Magician, by Charlie N Holmberg

I don't think I've read a book in such a long time that has left me so... what's the word... ah yes, enchanted.
The Paper Magician is a delight - it is by turns charming, inventive and, well, don't let me get ahead of myself. Let's start at the start.
The splendidly named Ceony Twill is a young magician in a world where those who would wield the arcane arts bond themselves to a particular substance. Ceony longs to wield metal - but a shortage of magicians in the field results in her being assigned to paper magic. She is disappointed, she is petulant - and then she meets her new master.
If Ceony's ambitions are broken, then so is her master Emery Thane's heart. As Ceony learns, so too there are hints that she might help to heal his pain. Indeed, perhaps too, she might learn to love him. Until darker magic intervenes, and what was a battle to learn becomes a battle to survive.
A romance for Harry Potter lovers, this sweet tale is a warm and witty adventure. I don't normally read romance, but this had long lured me in by the time that development unfolded. There are sequels too - and I'm in for more.

The Lift, 9 Stories of Transformation

The Lift started life as a spin-off from the Wicked Library podcast - which I've reviewed elsewhere on the blog - but now it has sprung into life as a collection of short stories. Volume one of such in fact, with the tantalising promise of further volumes. 
There is more than a theme at work here, with each story revolving around the character of Victoria, a little girl who plays a music box and offers people a ride in her lift to places which... well, which vary according to the passenger. 
In Brothers' Keeper, for example, two bickering brothers relive the spectres of their carnival past, while creator Daniel Foytik takes a swing at Trump in Buying America. Human Monsters, meanwhile, ventures into an apocalyptic landscape. The settings are abundant, Victoria is the constant. 
The highlight stories for me were Meg Hafdahl's The Barren, a hard-hitting contemplation on infertility and the choices we make; the splendid Cake, by Nelson W Pyles, with that conversation we can never have, with one we have lost - even harder, with one we lost long before their death to the bitter split of a family; and The Final One, by Charles Rakiecz, a time-twisting tale of cause and effect in the crucial moments of personal history. 
Much love has also been poured into the anthology in terms of its presentation - artwork of the music box, poetry and sketches, and even the sheet music for the theme tunes of Victoria, and the sound of the music box itself. 
For that extra love, the book earns an extra star in my ratings - bringing it to a hearty five out of five. 

I Wore Heels To The Apocalypse, by CH Clepitt

Given the amount of work by CH Clepitt I've read already, I probably shouldn't have been surprised by the splendidly named I Wore Heels To The Apocalypse. And yet here I am, surprised and delighted in equal measure.
I Wore Heels ain't nothing but a good time. It's fun, it's a frolic, it's the end of the world. Kerry is a website designer inclined towards baggy clothes and comfy shoes when an unexpected apocalypse leaves her in her least favourite shoe choice and with an absence of transferrable skills. Not much use for html in the wilderness since she left her one-bedroom flat.
Instead, she finds herself caught up in less of a battle for survival, more a forage for comfort - all while her travelling companions deal with their own issues of sexual fluidity. The end of the world can apparently do great things for clearing out those social pressures preventing you from admitting your attraction to the same sex. They won't laugh at you down the pub any more, after all.
This is a quirky, perky ride, frequently making you giggle and chortle in ways that make people eye you suspiciously on the tube train. Don't worry about that, you never know when an apocalypse might come along to let you chortle in peace.
I Wore Heels is the best I've read yet by CH Clepitt - and I was already a fan.

The Last City: A Dust Anthology

Back in the day, I used to be a big fan of the Thieves' World anthologies - shared-world stories inside a fantasy city by a host of great writers. So it was with some glee I picked up The Last City, a sci-fi version of something similar.
The city of the title is the last bastion of humanity, built into an asteroid and separated by levels which function not only as physical structure but as social strata. The further you go from the hieracrchy, the dirtier the city gets and the cheaper life feels.
The opening pair of stories do a great job of setting the scene - first there's Robert M Campbell's tale of an adventure gone wrong and the low lifes ready to exploit an opportunity for advancing themselves, then there's Jane Jago's fabulous tale of Sam Nero PI, a detective up against the odds but smart enough to make the most of the technology at his hands.
There's a real mix of tales here - you might not get the most cohesive feel for the city as a whole but you sure do get a glimpse at the fragmentary nature of life there.
I really enjoyed Thaddeus White's tale of a colony ship on the way to the city whose crew is forced to make tough choices, and it was great to encounter a new writer to me in Juliana Spink Mills, whose Blood Makes Noise both intrigued me with its exploration of an unusual death and had me humming Suzanne Vega all day.
This isn't the last we'll see of the Dust universe - I look forward to more.

Godfall and Other Stories, by Sandra M Odell

One of the delights of the ebook market is the ability to discover new writers. I likely wouldn't have found Sandra Odell's book on the shelf in my local bookstore - and that would have been a darn shame.
This collection of short stories is a delight and a treasure - yet it's more than your typical collection. There's a challenge here, a defiance. The stories are broadly within the fantasy and science fiction realm, but many of these tales scratch at itches under the skin, or make you feel the pain settled deeply into bones.
Nowhere is this better seen than in The Home For Broken. It's a story confronting the issues of disability - challenging the idea of people being broken. It's an agonising, painful story of parental choices, denial, and dealing with a life that has no easy choices. It's never been published outside of this collection, and it is absolutely worth your money for this alone.
But it's not alone. There are other gems scattered throughout this book. There's Godfall, the title story, with humanity mining the fallen corpses of deities as they crash to earth. There's The Poison Eater, bitter with the taste of small town life. There are issues of sexuality, sexual identity, gender roles (Black Widow absolutely kicks butt while exploring this), mortality (or immortality in The Vessel Is Never Empty), and far more, all wrapped around characters who are never soaring ideals but as screwed up and complicated as any of us. Like any collection, there will be stories that hit the mark with a reader and others that won't - I wasn't sold on the whimsy of A Troll's Trade, for example. That's not to diminish the work as a whole, though. This has quality throughout - not so long ago I read an Octavia Butler short story collection, and I couldn't help but feel reading this that Odell's work bore comparison. 
I read this book before going on holiday and didn't have time to write this review before taking off. All through the trip, parts of this book stayed with me. As a reader, it opened horizons. As a writer, it makes me want to do better. Go read it, you owe it to yourself.

Note: You can listen to the author reading The Home For Broken on YouTube here

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