The central heating is blasting, the good telly is lining up (His Dark Materials! The Crown!) and the mince pies have been on display at Waitrose for a month now, it’s starting to feel a wee bit festive.
Being a complete freak, I’m already well into prepping my Christmas present list this year and thought I’d spread some of the present buying joy. So this is for you, whether you want a little gift for yourself or the fellow book lover in your life, I thought I’d share twelve of the top books I’ve read this year that would excellent pressies or holiday reads. There’s a little bit of everything here, fiction and non-fiction, crime thrillers, science fiction and fantasy. Something for everyone!
Priest of Bones by Peter McLean
I saw Peter read from this at a Super Relaxed Fantasy Club event this Spring (if you haven’t been to one, it’s a must) and I was already at the back of the room buying a copy before he’d even finished. Think fantasy by way of Peaky Blinders. The start of a series, this book follows Tomas Piety and his motley crew of soldiers who have just returned to their home city after a long and grueling war. Tomas and his brother used to run a gang before the war but now that they’ve returned it’s to find the old gang in tatters and all of their territory gone. Good thing they know how to fight and take it back.
There’s magic here, there’s crime, there are hints at a bigger picture as the more successful the gang get the more attention from the upper echelons they receive. All the characters were brilliantly drawn and there’s so much difference between them that you have no problem telling them apart. So for something a bit different than your usual Epic Quest fair, I’d definitely recommend this.
The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan
After hearing two authors waxing lyrical about this (Adrian Selby and Ed McDonald if I remember correctly), I had to get it to see what the fuss was about. Boy, I was not disappointed. Gareth has done a lot of writing before for various RPGs (his Cthulhu City supplement for Trail of Cthulhu is mental) this is his first novel.
From the moment he introduced the Tallowmen (guards made from wax with living flame melting them from within), I knew I was in for a treat. There’s a lot of plot in this book which I’m not going to spoil on you, but the sheer imagination of the world Gareth had drawn up was breath-taking. Comparisons to China Mieville’s Bas-Lag series are well earned. The characters were fun, the story whisked me along and it’s a world I can’t wait to revisit. Which is good because his new book comes out in the Spring.
The Poison Song by Jen Williams
The final in Jen’s Winnowing Flame Trilogy, which started with The Ninth Gate, this was everything you wanted it to be after the roller coaster of the past two books. I had already fallen in love with the characters, yelled at Jen for some of her decisions (she’d best be ready for all my fanfic) and couldn’t see a way things could possibly turn out ok for everyone. Now at the conclusion, Jen pulled a blinder by delivering an ending that was every bit as epic, poignant and fantastic as the trilogy deserved. She won more awards this year for this series and so she jolly well should have.
Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
Let’s take a break from fantasy a moment. This debut novel was a small nugget of polished gold. Set in the present day from the point of view of a Filipino-American teenage, it follows Jay as he travels to the Philippines on the news of his cousin’s death. The book talks about the current war on drugs the President is waging in the country and the estimates 12,000 people that have died in it so far since 2016. Patron Saints is a heartfelt book about being caught between two cultures, having a foot in both yet belonging to neither, its about family, the difference between generations and sheds light on something few people in the West are aware of. It doesn’t raise solutions or even try to, this is about family, trying to live in the world and work things out.
Jailbirds by Mim Skinner
Author Mim Skinner writes eloquently about her time volunteering in a women’s prison. Separated into neat little chapters (including handy break downs of prison slang), every story served up something different, the impenetrable sometimes Kafkaesque bureaucracy, Mim’s forays into talking to the residents about feminism, drugs, conflicts, resolutions and everyday kindnesses. This book was something raw and real, with no villains or heroes, just a lot of people doing their best with what little they had. This was a book that I’m going to be thinking about for years to come and I think you might feel the same if you give it a try.
Bone China by Laura Purcell
I realised recently that I’ve read all Laura’s books for Bloomsbury in a single year, starting in October 2018 when I read her excellent The Silent Companions on my stag do, up to reading Bone China this summer. Suffice to say that if you haven’t tried any of her books, you’re in for a treat. If a tincture of gothic spookiness is just your cup of laudanum during the long winter nights, if you’re a fan of Sarah Waters or Daphne Du Maurier then these are the books for you. Bone China starts with Hester Why, a brilliant character with fondness for laudanum on her way to isolated Morvoren House in deepest, darkest Cornwall. It then time skips between her and a woman who lived there 40 years previously and picks excellently at the seam between science and superstition. Very much worth your time and perfect for spooky ghost story season.
The Switching Hour by Damaris Young
One for the (slightly older) kids. This is the tale of a drought-ravaged people beset by a mysterious creature called Badeko. Coming out at the switching hour (gloaming), it steals people away to eat their dreams. Those left behind suffer the Sorrow Sickness, their memories of the missing loved one fading away, leaving only the grief behind so that they end up in mourning for someone they can’t remember. When Amaya’s little brother is taken, she heads off into the forest to get him back, racing to find him before she forgets him completely. This had such a great hook and it really delivered offering a nice blend of folk tale and creepy with amazing atmosphere. Hell, forget the kids, read this one yourself too.
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
This book came out of NOWHERE for me. I hadn’t heard of it but suddenly there it was on my kindle and the blurb told me it was a story I was exactly in the mood for and before I knew it, I was two chapters in. The 1920s Mexico setting, the folklore, the characters, the story, I loved it. There was a Gaimen-esque quality to it. It was a little American Gods (gods and other creatures hidden in plain sight among humans) with a bit of Stardust (a character on a folklorish quest, abiding by the rules of folklore) thrown in. It built wonderfully and I couldn’t help but keep turning the pages, determined to know how it ended. Can’t wait to see what the author does next.
A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie
I’ve been looking forward to this book for a loooooong time. I’m a huge fan of Joe’s books and when I heard he was writing a new trilogy set in the First Law world I was THERE for it. Boy, did he not disappoint. To see the world having moved on into an industrial revolution was a fantastic change of scene. The new characters were absorbing and, knowing Joe, you can’t help but keep reading to find out how he’s going to abuse them next. Joe’s always written brilliantly morally compromised characters and he does it in spades here. It feels very much like the first of a trilogy, but after the way this book ended you better believe I’m desperate for The Trouble with Peace. I also got the exclusive Waterstones edition which came with an additional short story. Though not essential reading it was very well told, cementing Joe’s status as one of the best writers in fantasy, right now.
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
I picked this up because it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Then I read it and discovered exactly why it did. I found this an astounding bit of science-fiction, doing all those things that the best science-fiction is known for. Spanning millennia, the story switches deftly between a race of spiders who have had jumper-cables attached to their evolutionary progress and a ship filled with the last humans in the galaxy hopping in and out of cryo-sleep. The story is brilliant as it slowly leads these two species into conflict for the only habitable planet but the concept allows Adrian to juggle so many themes (religion, gender, communications, science, the list goes on) and he does so brilliantly. The more you read the more you discover how fantastic the title is, matching so many facets of the story. This is a big mind expanding book and deserves to be a future classic of science fiction.
City of Lies by Sam Hawke
Not so much a whodunnit, as a who-sieged-it. Sam Hawke delivered a stunning debut novel with a concept I’ve never seen before. Set in a city-state from the twin POVs of the chief poison-taster for the ruler and his sister (who is much more than we are first led to believe), the book starts with a poisoning of a high-ranking official and before you know it the city is under siege from an unknown army. Incredible! As the walls are scaled and battles fought, Jovan and Kalina have to race against time to discover not only who the poisoner is but also the identity of this mysterious army. Who are they? And why are they attacking? As the title suggests, there’s a great deal of treachery, skulduggery and plots to be contended with but Sam also touches on some brilliant themes surrounding politics and the city / countryside divide that exists in nations across the globe.
Tinseltown by William J. Mann
Time for a bit of True Crime. Taking place in Hollywood in the 1920s, this follows the real-life story of the murder of a then-famous film producer. William is an excellent story teller, he takes the facts (everything sourced from interviews, news pieces, statements and diaries) and writes it so that it reads like a brilliant novel. We follow a wealth of characters / suspects and, as we sift through the evidence, we get a perfect snapshot of Hollywood at the time. This book is full of drugs, cons, blackmail, cover-ups, psychics, movie stars and so many moments that made my jaw drop, unable to believe that any of this could have actually happened. If there are more books out there like these, I will DEVOUR them.
So there we have it. I hope there’s at least one book that you fancy. And maybe if you wanted an extra book for yourself, a loved one or a rival, you might also consider my supernatural thriller, The End of the Line, which is out now in ebook and audio.