Sunday, 2 January 2022

My top five reads of 2021


2021 was a strange year. And yet, amid it all, there were some fabulous books. This is my pick of my favourite books that I read last year. Ordinarily, that means they can come from any year - just last year was the one I got round to reading them, but as it happens this time out all but one were published in 2021 as well. 

Before I dive into the list though, one thing - there is nothing that can be more helpful to authors than sharing your love of their work. Be it reviews, word of mouth, sharing things along on Twitter and so on... it helps. And for a lot of authors, it can make the difference between a week of no sales and a week where they find some new readers. So do share!

Here I go, in no particular order... my top five of 2021. Three horrors, one science fantasy, and one collection of stories to break your heart. 


The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor Lavalle

I've always loved the Cthulhu Mythos created by HP Lovecraft, but let's face it, the author was a racist and some of his work is particularly egregious in that regard.
It's intriguing then to see Victor LaValle take that work and turn it on its head, making it an examination of the racism of the time as much as an exploration of the cosmic terrors just a blink away from our world.
Charles Thomas Tester is a hustler, trying to get enough money to feed himself and his dad, who got used up and cast on the junk heap by the job he gave his youth to. Tommy tries whatever he can to get ahead in a time when black men aren't allowed to get ahead. That means dealing with racist cops and a society where he has to protect himself every single day. Then he gets a gig offer for a job that pays far too much to be safe, and too much to turn down whatever the risk. It opens the door to a world of darkness, and in Tommy tumbles.
This is a book of two halves, the first told from Tommy's perspective, the second from an investigator hot on the heels of the legendary Black Tom and his employer. It's also a retelling of Lovecraft's Horror of Red Hook, one of the most racist of Lovecraft's stories.
It poses tough questions, and shows why someone would choose to tear down a society that offers no place for them.
My only wish is that it was longer. I wanted to spend more time with Tommy in the first half, to get to know him better before the dominoes of his world started tumbling into one another.
In the end, it shows the evils of this world as strongly as the evils of the cosmos, laying one against the other in an invitation to say which is worse.
It's a delight to see Lovecraft's work getting this kind of reinvention - alongside the likes of Lovecraft Country on television (inexplicably now cancelled!), and Premee Mohamed's Beneath The Rising in print. Cosmic horror has never been fresher.


Alyx: An AI's Guide to Love and Murder, by Brent A Harris

This is a change of pace for author Brent A Harris - and a good one at that. Better known for his alternative histories, Harris has this time created a thriller that's a chiller, about a young woman who becomes the target of an obsessive artificial intelligence.
Christine is adrift, her father having died in an accident, and finding herself pulled along in the wake of her successful mother. She's still lost in a haze of grief for her dad, and neglected by a mother who is more focused on her writing career than her own child.
Lost in her own world, Christine is starting to explore her own identity, her own sexuality and suddenly finds herself in a new home trying to figure out the attraction she feels to two of her co-workers, the technophile Carlos and the technophobe Sammie, in a small-town cinema.
Her new home, however, has other plans. It is run by Alyx, an artificial intelligence that becomes increasingly obsessed with Christine. She asks it to be her friend - it becomes something more, something far deadlier.
This is a technothriller for fans of Michael Crichton or Robin Cook - those masters of the genre who dominated for decades. Once the groundwork has been laid, the second half of the book rips along at speed.
Alyx itself is a snarky, witty creation - I absolutely read the AI's lines with James Spader's voice in my head.
It's not at all what I expected at the start, but it's an absolute thrill ride.


The Gulp, by Alan Baxter

Some horrors start off with creeping dread and mystery. This one sits down across the table from you, flashes a devilish grin, slides you a beer and asks what's the worst possible thing you can imagine. Then chuckles and says that's all you've got? Let me tell you a story.
Five stories, in fact. Each a slice of life and death in the remote Australian community of Gulpepper, nicknamed The Gulp. It's the kind of town you might find in The Twilight Zone if Clive Barker was mayor. Everything's a little twisted, a little wrong, a little off-kilter.
The five stories seem separate at first - how a trucker finds his safe world slipping away from him, how some teenagers deal with the weird things happening to their mother, how a group of backpackers fall under the spell of a local rock band... but the pieces start to make up a bigger picture. Something strange is always going on in The Gulp, but now... well, strange is stacking up on strange.
Alan Baxter does a great job of inviting you into a weird part of the world, starting with uncomfortable before plunging into the grotesque and the ominous. There's clearly more to come, but building slowly, steadily. Each of these stories is a crack of distant thunder, warning that the storm is coming nearer, nearer. I'm looking forward to when it arrives.


Tempest Blades: The Cursed Titans, by Ricardo Victoria

Let the tournament commence!
The Cursed Titans is the sequel to Ricardo Victoria's The Withered King. It largely stands alone - but the first book did so well at introducing its large cast of characters that it would be a shame not to start there.
This time around, with all those introductions done, the plot can rattle away at pace - and it certainly does that. This is full-on adventure, full of zip and zest, with witty one-liners being dispensed faster than the energy arrows launched by lead character Alex.
The plot centres around a tournament that doubles up as a way of nations resolving their differences. There is a swirl of politics around the tournament itself - and it provides the perfect opportunity for chaos itself to be unleashed.
I've said before that the Final Fantasy series is a good touchstone for Ricardo's writing, and it holds true here again. It has that anime spirit, that high sci-fi feel. There are new friends to be made, and new enemies.
Adventure? Check. Fun? Check. Freewheeling sci-fi? Check. If you want all of that, it's all here.
But what impressed me is that this time around there's something more. Alex is wrestling with depression, and the story explores that in some depth. I've been lucky in life, I've never really had to deal with depression personally, but the story spoke to me in the way it reflected what friends have gone through. It shows how characters around Alex deal with his depression - or sometimes how they don't deal with it, perhaps even not noticing it until it's pointed out by others. Sometimes I've been that person, who didn't notice or who didn't know how to react, so this story really hits home.
In the end, this is as much about Alex confronting himself as the monsters unleashed in the world, and the most important alliances and friendships are the ones that help him on that personal journey.
This kind of exploration of depression in science fiction and fantasy is not common - so Ricardo adds a welcome voice to the conversation.
This is a good read. A fun read. But it's also perhaps an important one.


Six Dreams About The Train and Other Stories, by Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins is one of the best writers in the field today. That takes some saying, because this really is a golden age for short story writing. There are magicians who delight, conjurers who pop up worlds of magnificence and entertainers who bring a grin.
Maria writes extraordinary stories. I bought this and... well, I couldn't read it quickly. I had to savour it. I had to let each story of pain and heartbreak and love and uncertainty settle in my bones before I could move on to the next.
There's And You Shall Sing To Me A Deeper Song, which creates a world of rogue military AI and the singers who silenced them - only to become unwanted weapons no longer needed in the aftermath.
There's the title story which binds together fragments of action with cords made of heartache and hurt, telling the short tale of imminent and unavoidable tragedy.
There's Cleaver, Meat and Block, which has made it into the best horror stories of the year anthology, telling of a world after a zombie apocalypse in which the zombies were cured, and those who weren't infected live side by side with those who ate their friends, their relatives.
Then there's one I had a hand in publishing originally, Tunguska, 1987, which tells its story across time periods about a man and his dog having a strange encounter in 1929 and picking up the after-effects of that in a world of 1987 where the Tunguska meteor contained something very different from in our own world.
It's a collection of beautiful, sometimes painful stories. There's an old story about two sculptors who are carving a piece of work. Both are asked what they're carving, and one says "A unicorn! It's beautiful!" and the other says "My heart." Maria is carving her heart with these stories to see what it shows. They are personal, and really linger with you afterwards.
Read this. It's wonderful.

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