Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Shroud Magazine's 20 Recommended Reads of 2009

Book reviewing is a strange gig. Everyone likes different things. Taste and preferences vary. So do style and voice. As much as we don't want to admit it, it's often all a matter of opinion. One reader's bestseller is another reader's most despised literary atrocity ever put to page. That, and how to account for the way one book impacts some readers, yet glances off the head of others? Sometimes, it has everything to do with quality, style, taste, and timing. Other times, books simply hook readers in "just the right way".

I read. A lot. Far more books than the ones I review, and I have to confess that it's often the same with me: one book simply stays with me, though perhaps other books were just as well written, or maybe even better written. What I offer here is simply twenty books that have "stayed" with me over the course of 2009. I make no grand statements about them being the "Best Books" of 2009. "Shroud Magazine's Recommended Reads of 2009" seems a better fit. Also, I picked with no consideration of publishers, be they small, mid-list or other. I simply picked the books that "stayed with me", regardless of who published them. Likewise, I've not ranked them "first to last", just picked the twenty I remember most.

I'm a high school English teacher by trade, so I possess a love and respect for classic literature. I've studied literary criticism and Creative Writing at the Undergraduate and Graduate level, and I've been writing reviews for publication – both in print and electronically – for over five years now. However, before all that, as a kid...I was a rabid reader. I read because reading excited me, took me places I'd never been before. Though it may seem simplistic, for me it all comes down to that: did the book excite me, take me to new places, so much so I could read it again and again?

These are the books that excited me throughout 2009. Click on the title links to read the full review:

Jake's Wake, (Leisure Fiction), by John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow

In “Jake's Wake”, Splatterpunk veteran John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow team up to paint a bloody vista that will remain entrenched in the reader's imagination long after the last page. An effortless collaboration, the narrative is seamless, unified. There's no guessing where Skipp ends and Goodfellow begins. They meld their differing styles smoothly to fashion a story that hits the ground running and never lets up, not until its surprisingly spiritual last page.

Bestial, (Leisure Fiction), by Ray Garton

“Bestial” moves at a blistering pace. Where “Ravenous” succeeded by instilling a creeping sense of horror, “Bestial” triumphs in its intrigue as the werewolves spread their influence throughout Big Rock. The humans aren't toothless in this installment, however, as surprise guests from another Garton novel make an appearance. Private investigators Gavin Keoph and Karen Moffet have been hired to investigate the strange events in Big Rock, and they're packing loads of silver.

The Golem, (Leisure Fiction), by Edward Lee

Ancient myths and legends often provide the best material for dark tales. They echo with resonance and history. In “The Golem”, Edward Lee harnesses this resonance with powerful and horrifying results. Under his dreadful ministrations, the golem comes alive and walks the earth. Unlike its legendary predecessor, however, Lee's golem is a dreadful engine of destruction, leaving piles of mutilated bodies and torn lives in its wake.

Pressure, (Leisure Fiction), by Jeff Strand

There are countless ways for authors to instill terror, but none so effective as exposing the cruelty hiding in the human heart. Jeff Strand does this – flawlessly - in his first mass market release. In a visceral narrative voice spiced with beguiling wit, Strand shows readers that humans are capable of far worse things than any supernatural monster.

The Absence, (Bloody Books), by Bill Hussey

Plumbing the depths of folklore, Bill Hussey crafts a winner with “The Absence”. As with “Through A Glass Darkly,” Hussey's prose is lyrical and flowing, but “The Absence” moves at a quicker pace than its predecessor. It's story doesn't lose any strength, however, and in many ways is more poignant: it's hard to pin down the ultimate villain. That's not to say there's no resolution, but rather to highlight one of its key themes: there's darkness in everyone, and though we fight it as best we can, often it consumes us in the end.

The Shore, (Leisure Fiction), by Robert Dunbar

In literary circles, it's often said that "style is the verbal identity of the writer"; that an author can be identified by the nature of their craft. Iambic pentameter suggests Shakespeare, lyrical prose evokes Bradbury, pinpoint word economy reveals Carver. In this way, Robert Dunbar's vivid imagery continues to blaze a distinctive trail. As he did in "The Pines", Dunbar captures the aura of a dying town perfectly, painting an entirely different portrait this time, one of winter and ice. Also, he explores the Leeds Devil's legend deeper, posing the question: what separates natural impulse from true evil?

The Strain, (William Morrow), by Guillermo Del Torro and Chuck Hogan

Reinventing an often-used story is a dicey thing. Depart from tradition, risk alienating hardcore fans. Retread a story that's been “done before”, risk the sharp tongues of critics who want “something new”. Sometimes, the best a writer can aim for is to tell a familiar story with fresh characters and circumstances, and tell it well. In “The Strain”, Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan repackage the classic vampire tale for a new generation...and they do it well; masterfully so.

Ghostwriter, (Hachette Book Group), by Travis Thrasher

What exactly should “horror” be? Some readers view it as entertainment, pure and simple. For them, the horror genre is a safe way to experience thrills and chills. Others view it as a vehicle for serious social commentary, an opportunity to address weighty issues through speculative storytelling.

Still others think it's the best way to depict the battle between good and evil, reminding us that too often evil wins, and that “good” can be far more frightening than we ever imagined. Regardless, most everyone can agree that storytelling with a purpose is the best possible kind, and that's what Travis Thrasher offers in “Ghostwriter.” This isn't a chilling story for the sake of thrills; Thrasher writes with a deeper purpose.

Prime, (Apex Publications), by Nate Kenyon

From Bram Stoker Finalist Nate Kenyon comes a blistering, fast-paced tale channeling the likes of “Blade Runner”, “Johnny Mnemonic”, even a bit of “The Matrix”. Offering social commentary as well as thrills and intrigue, Kenyon shifts from horror to science fiction and cyberpunk smoothly, enhancing an already strong storytelling reputation and widening his repertoire.

The Child Thief, (EOS Books), by Brom

“The Child Thief” is a haunting, almost sinister look at the darkness lurking beneath the fabled fairy tale of “Peter Pan”, the forever adventuring child of Neverland. Skillfully blending myths, legends and fairy tales, award winning artist Brom presents a starkly different Peter: egotistical, maniacal, sadistic, manipulative, half insane...and horribly alone. This golden eyed boy laughs loud, plays hard, and schemes endlessly for his own, demented good, recruiting lost children into an army destined to die horrible deaths, all so Peter can continue playing his twisted games.

Last Exit For the Lost, (Cemetery Dance), by Tim Lebbon

“Last Exit For the Lost” is a collection of dark, stirring tales from one of the most poetic writers working in the genre today, Tim Lebbon. Offering some of his best work to date, Lebbon weaves an entrancing tapestry of stories happening both near and far away; in locales mundane and fantastical, but one thing endures: his elegant style. He exhibits an almost casual mastery over his craft, moving in and out of genres and tropes fluidly, almost effortlessly. Even the hardest critic will be hard pressed to find a “weak link” in this collection.

Faces in the Fire, (Thomas Nelson Books), by T. L. Hines

Serendipity. Fate. Providence. Destiny. Words that describe the unpredictable, circuitous path of life. On the surface chaos rules, but when individual stories are pasted together, a pattern emerges; sometimes subtle, other times astounding. Bad things happen everywhere, but just as often, destruction breeds creation. In T. L. Hines' latest, four novellas tell separate yet joined tales connected at the smallest turns. It's a dark world, true enough. Many novels portray that. “Faces in the Fire” shows how that darkness serves to make even small glimmers of light brighter.

Rot, (Skullvines Press), by Michele Lee

When a genre convention is hot, there's the temptation for writers to jump on the bandwagon and cater to that convention wholesale, in the hopes of “riding the wave”. Currently, zombies are the vehicles of choice in horror fiction. There's Star Wars zombies, (decently enough done), literary zombies, and even zombie haiku.

“Rot”, Michele Lee's entry into the zombie pantheon, does something a bit different. She personifies zombies, gives them emotions and feelings and a painful humanity...then stuffs them into nursing homes and leaves them there, neglected, abused...left to rot.

Futile Efforts, (Cemetery Dance), by Tom Piccirilli

To say the fiction of Tom Piccirilli often defies convention or genre labeling would be a grand understatement. Better to say Piccirilli creates his own literary space, inhabited by beings of a dark but strangely beautiful grotesqueness, characters that offer readers twisted, warped reflections of themselves.

Depraved, (Leisure Fiction), by Bryan Smith

“Depraved” is a jet-fueled tale that begins fast and mean and never lets up. Smith blends multiple plot-lines together seamlessly, pulling readers into his characters' sprints for survival. This isn't just a recipe for horror “shock and awe”; however, as Smith crafts characters that provoke empathy, pity, even disgust...but are three-dimensional regardless, which pulls readers even deeper down this dark and twisted hole.

“The Gentling Box”, (Dark Hart Press), by Lisa Manetti

Lisa Mannetti's first outing – winner of the Bram Stoker Award for “Best First Novel” - is a significant work of substance, a weighty tale that's dark, disturbing and enthralling. It's not merely horror “du jour” full of sex and bloodshed, (though there's plenty here), it's a tragic tale rich with pathos, an expression of human suffering and bittersweet triumph.

“Star Wars: Death Troopers”, (Del Ray Books), by Joe Schreiber

No lightsabers. No Jedi. Nothing but dark space and the things shambling after you on a derelict Star Destroyer. They are hungry and dead, but not mindless. They are growing. Evolving. Planning...and very, very angry. They are swarming everywhere, and they have one desire – to feed.

Blasters just aren't going to work, this time.

Unhappy Endings, (Delirium Books), by Brian Keene

Short fiction collections of established, best-selling authors are often viewed skeptically. Is the collection simply a ploy to lure loyal readers into spending more money, or is it a fresh gathering of new stories from a never-ending wellspring of imagination?

Rest assured, Brian Keene's “Unhappy Endings” (Delirium Books) is the later. There are several winners and shockers here, and even the stories that don't leave as much of an impression don't detract from the collection itself. In many ways, that's the value of a collection; it's like a literary buffet. Readers can pick their favorites, and if one story doesn't grab them, they can move to the next.

Invisible Fences, (Cemetery Dance), by Norman Prentiss

Norman Prentiss' debut is a haunting tale of reminiscence and regret, of how things thought laid to rest long ago still lurk at the bottom of our souls. His prose is smooth, nearly flawless, and his narrative voice invokes a Gothic, literary tone. Best of all, the chills lie solidly in the strength and substance of the story, rather than something tacked on in pastiche at the end.

“Black Train”, (Leisure Fiction), by Edward Lee

Leisure's reprinted version of “Gast”, (Camelot Books), is staple Edward Lee – sexual, disgusting, revolting...and obsessively readable all the same. As he did in “The Golem”, Lee crafts sympathetic characters readers connect to, gives them realistic circumstances, then drops them into the middle of hell. This is why his work is so attractive: his characters tug readers into the farthest reaches of “suspension of disbelief”, pulling them down his twisted rabbit hole.


There you have it. Needless to say, I read and reviewed many great, entertaining books this year that didn't appear on this list. I also read plenty of great books for personal pleasure and not for review. Also, I've read many great books I haven't had the chance to review as of yet, and my TBR (to be read) pile is full of great books in need of reading and reviewing. Those reviewed in 2010 will be eligible for next December's list, even if they were published in 2009.

Have a safe and Happy New Year. Turn off the television, log off the 'Net, (which I'm about to do) and read something. You'll be happy you did. I promise.


Rabid Fox said...

Of these titles, I've been fortunate enough to read The Gentling Box and The Strain. From the others on your list, I'm particularly hopeful to read Pressure. I've heard nothing but good things about that novel. As for the rest, if they are on my wish list already, they will be.

Anton Cancre said...

Thanks for that, Kev. What I really needed was a whole bunch more to add to my "maybe I'll be able to read it event1ually" pile. Since you liked Rot, you might dig Luke Keioskie's Dead America. An interesting riff on the basic idea behind Shatter Dead.