Dan recommends: The best of fiction

Another year is coming to a close and it gives me pause to think about what an amazing year it has been for fiction! We’ve been bestowed with such a wealth of quality new releases, from longstanding authors continuing to deliver, debuts of such genius it boggles the mind, sequels that have been waiting more than a century, and a bold author new takes on an old classic.

Catalogue link to Flames by Robbie ArnottMy highlights for this year start with not only the best book I’ve read this year but possibly the best I will ever read, ever!

I’m talking it up, I know but here’s some of the reasons why… Flames is a tribute to nature, the environment, our place in it, the unseen elements, the powers that rule, and the lives of all things. It weaves myths and small gods into the fabric of the environment, masters of unseen systems which shape lives unbeknownst to the humans inhabiting their land. This is an astonishingly good book. It’s elemental, blurs the lines between reality and mythology, sweeps you up in atmosphere and the sense of place, and the use of language is sublime. The story is set in Tasmania and centres around a family with deep connections to the land and environment. A young woman sets out south, alone to the wilderness of ancient Tasmania, while her brother sets out to build her a coffin and sends a private detective to track down his sister and bring her home.Through the course we discover an ageless world, gods of nature, young people coming of age, and what it is to engage with your world. Superb effort and the best thing I’ve read this year – quite an effort given the next titles I’ll share with you!

Catalogue link to Macbeth by Jo NesboWhen Hogarth Shakespeare set out to create modern retellings of the great works of Shakespeare, they were inspired by their choice of Jo Nesbo to retell Macbeth. Macbeth The master of noir violence and mystery has done an absolutely brilliant job of turning Macbeth (the man) into a Scottish police officer, wracked with guilt of the past, plagued with addiction, and hungry for power. It’s so obvious to me now that Macbeth was MADE for the Scandi-Noir genre treatment. It’s gritty, dark, violent. Full of power, betrayal, and characters walking the fine line between sanity and madness. For this story Macbeth is head of SWAT in a dangerous and corrupt town and together with his mistress, Lady, the rags-to-riches casino entrepreneur, they embark on a powerplay to seize control of the city. But Macbeth has a sketchy past full of drug abuse and violence and as he relapses things get out of control, people get killed, lines get blurred… A great read and a must if you like Scandi Crime!

Catalogue record for The shepherd's hut by Tim WintonThe next two I’d like to share are by two of the most important authors of our contemporary world right now – in my humble opinion. The first is the Australian writer Tim Winton and his newest book The Shepherd’s Hut. It’s the very colourful and memorable account of a young man forced by circumstance to take to the outback roads of rural Western Australia. Such brilliant descriptive writing will have you smelling the eucalyptus in the air, and hearing the crispy arid saltlands crunching underfoot. Jaxie is running and he’s got a vague destination in mind – north. And he’s got to survive the perils of rural Australia, criminals, and the very land that seems to want to kill him from heat, thirst or animal attack. An outstanding book from a great Australian author and written in vernacular language too, strengthening characters and adding some lightness!

Catalogue record for Don't skip out on me by Willy VlautinThe other amazing offering comes from an American author; Don’t Skip Out on Me

Willy Vlautin is one of my favourite authors writing today and his works just keep getting better and better. He writes of contemporary everyday life and he tells the stories of working class Americans and the very real struggles faced by ordinary people in the America of today. This one is concerning a young American Indian man who passionately desires to be a champion boxer. He begins his journey on a ranch in Nevada where an ageing couple has adopted him, and follows him to Arizona as he sets his mind to a life of pugilism. Beautifully written and full of the heart and pathos that Willy Vlautin is famous for. A stellar effort and worthy of much praise.

Catalogue record for Only killers and thieves by Paul HowarthAnd now for the fans of gritty Historical Fiction and WesternsOnly Killers and Thieves

Another great debut from Australia that really captures the Australian Gothic story. It’s the story of two young men, not boys but barely men, after a traumatic family event that sees them on a journey not of their choosing. The book describes the brutality of life in 1800’s Australia, the treatment of the indigenous population, and the rigourous adherence to the ‘old ways’ in this vastly alien and seemingly lawless world. If you like your reading to be vivid, violent, confronting, and troublesome then you’ll sure like this one!

Catalogue record for Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J. D. BarkerI was originally going to keep this list of highlights to five titles but there’s another one that came to my attention recently. It’s the sequel (a prequel to be more precise) that’s taken over a century to come into existence. Dracul

The official prequel to the great work, this one penned by none other than Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew and authorised by his estate. It’s told in the familiar form of diary entries and personal notes, and tells the story of Bram himself who along with his siblings encounter some serious evil and a creature so powerful and unknowable that it threatens their very souls. So well written and very readable, good pace (bit of a page turner), and language that would please the original author. A great read for fans of horror, mystery/suspense, or the classics. Definitely one of my best picks for 2018 and a worthy inclusion to this highlights package (and my colleague Fee loved it too)!

Now I look at the titles that missed out on inclusion to this list with some sadness – like I say, it was a remarkable year for quality fiction! Here at least you have a selection for your holiday reading this summer. Grab one at your local library, settle in with a cup o’tea (or something else), and get some amazing stories in for the hols.

Happy reading,

^DevilStateDan

A fiction lover’s mid-year review

2018 is screaming past at quite a rate and I have had the pleasure of filling this time with some quality reading!

I’ve made a list of the novels that I have enjoyed so far in 2018 and made comments on each so you can better decide whether they might be for you – my guess is that they’re so good you’ll want to read all of them!

There’s a decent representation of my favourite authors here too – the universe smiled upon us this year for new books from amazing authors. I was particularly excited to get a hold of First Person, the latest from the great Tasmanian Richard Flanagan. He’s a Booker Prize winner for his 2013 novel Narrow Road to the Deep North, and could go again with First Person, it’s very VERY good!

And another great Australian author Tim Winton; I was eagerly awaiting the chance to read The Shepherd’s Hut, another triumph for the doyen of Australian literary fiction.

And then there was The Free by Willy Vlautin. His economy and direct use of language, and his ability to accurately depict the struggles of everyday rural and poor America makes him one of the most exciting American authors working today, in my humble opinion, and he’s producing consistently outstanding work.

And most recently I’ve finally gotten my hands on Macbeth by Jo Nesbo! Hogarth Shakespeare have really nailed it by engaging Nesbo to do Macbeth and it’s definitely one of my highlights for the year – that and Flanagan’s First Person will be hard to top!

I’ve also included some modern sci-fi, some new Scandi-Noir, some historical fiction from NZ, and a classic from Kurt Vonnegut – and I’ll let you read about them yourself 🙂 (Please note that a number of these titles are also available in eBook or eAudiobook formats, so you’ve got plenty of options!)

2018 – The Best of Fiction…. so far!

List created by DevilStateDan

The highlights of my explorations through the fiction collection of Christchurch City Libraries for the first half of 2018. Some titles are new, some have been out for decades, all of them are great!

Cover of First person by Richard FlanaganFirst Person – A struggling writer gets an opportunity to ghost-write the memoir of a notorious con man in 1990s Australia but the road is a slippery one and lines become blurred as our man becomes ever deeper involved.

This is arguably Richard Flanagan’s greatest work to date, and he’s definitely entrenched himself at the top of the heap of contemporary authors.

Cover of Macbeth by Jo NesboMacbeth – This is obviously a retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and what a brilliant treatment and with Jo Nesbo as an inspired choice for author. It’s so obvious to me now that Macbeth was MADE for the Scandi-Noir genre treatment. It’s gritty, dark, violent. Full of power, betrayal, and characters walking the fine line between sanity and madness. For this story Macbeth is head of SWAT in a dangerous and corrupt town and together with his mistress, Lady, the rags-to-riches casino entrepreneur, they embark on a powerplay to seize control of the city. But Macbeth has a sketchy past full of drug abuse and violence and as he relapses things get out of control, people get killed, lines get blurred…

Cover of The shepherd's hut by Tim WintonThe Shepherd’s Hut – The doyen of Australian literary fiction has done it again with this book. It’s the very real account of a young man forced by circumstance to take to the roads and outback of rural Western Australia. Such brilliant descriptive writing will have you smelling the eucalypt in the air, and hearing the crispy arid saltlands crunching underfoot. Jaxie is running and he’s got a vague destination in mind – north. And he’s got to survive the perils of rural Australia, criminals, and the very land that seems to want to kill him from heat, thirst or animal attack. An outstanding book from a great Australian author and written in vernacular language too!

Cover of Machine learning by Hugh Howey

Machine Learning – A set of short sci-fi stories from the author of the super popular ‘Silo’ Series. Hugh Howey is one of the best contemporary science fiction authors working today and these stories are thought provoking, dark, ominous, and challenging. He features some stories from the world of ‘Silo’ as well as stories of AI, Aliens, Virtual Worlds, and some Fantasy too. Beaut writer, beaut stories!

Cover The free by Willy VlautinThe Free – Another winner from one of my favourite authors writing today. It’s a snapshot of everyday life in middle America amongst a group of individuals all experiencing life differently. The solo man keeping two jobs to stay afloat, the nurse who has seen too much and has a strained relationship with her mentally ill father, and there’s Leroy, an injured soldier who drifts between consciousness and another place. The characters all struggle in their way to navigate life and retain their dignity and sense of self, and the authors minimalist writing style is stark and very effective at conveying they way in which real people communicate with each other. If you like the human experience warts-and-all then give this a go!

Cover of The melody by Jim CraceThe Melody – This story centres around an ageing singer/performer who was once a celebrated entertainer commanding full houses of societys elite. Nowadays he shuffles around suffering from the recent death of his loving wife, but then thing take a sinister turn when he’s attacked in his own home by a creature of unknown origin. His world is challenged as he negotiates his way around the incident and who he once was, who he is now, and what his future holds. Supremely well written with great use of language.

Medusa – An outstanding addition to the world of Scandi-Noir and one of the best I’ve read. Solid character building, quick paced action, and interwoven plot of suspicion and intrigue, and a series of grisly crimes in rural Norway – everything you could want in a crime novel! Medusa

Cover of One way by Simon MordenOne Way – What do you do when you want to colonise another planet, say Mars for instance?!? Well you could take a leaf from the book of British colonialism and send convicts to do the hard yards before the rich and elite arrive – and that’s just what America has done in this new sci-fi adventure. A small team of “dangerous” felons are recruited to build the first habitation on the red planet, what could go wrong…? A murder perhaps, and with nowhere to run it’s a spacey-whodunnit! Good writing and full of wit, if you like ‘The Martian’ by Andy Weir or his follow up ‘Artemis’ then you’ll get a kick out of ‘One Way’!

Cover of Only killers and thieves by Paul HowarthOnly Killers and Thieves – A great debut from a new author that really captures the Australian Gothic story. It’s the story of two young men, not boys but barely men, after a traumatic family event that sees them on a journey not of their choosing. The book describes the brutality of life in colonial Australia, the treatment of the indigenous population, and the rigourous adherence to the ‘old ways’ in this vastly alien and seemingly lawless world. If you like your reading to be vivid, violent, confronting, and troublesome then you’ll sure like this one!

Cover of The sons by Anton SvenssonThe Sons – On its initial appearance it seems like another addition to the massive genre of Scandinavian crime novels, but it’s much more and can stand alone as a piece of literary fiction deserving of high praise. Three young men have just served sentences for aggravated armed robbery. They are brothers, raised by the petty criminal and domestic abuser father that they committed their last crime with. On the final sons release we follow what happens next as they try to recreate some kind of normality – whatever “normality” means for each of them though is very different. Starting out I was worried that because I didn’t really like any the characters my attention may sway, but that fear allayed pretty early on by the authors great descriptive writing which bares all to scene of a family torn apart by the criminal inclinations of a small representation of their larger sum. This is part 2 in the ‘Made in Sweden’ series, the first book being ‘The Father’. Can’t wait for the next one!

For more view the full list

^DevilStateDan

The Northern Frights

It’s wintertime and darkness is falling
Crime is thriving and the body count’s high.
Your neighbour’s dead
and your boss is in prison
So hush your mouth or you might die.

Cover of Last RitualsThis pretty much covers it if you read or watch Scandi Noir (Dark Scandinavian fiction) which, unlike those early raiders from Northern Europe, has quietly snuck into our consciousness. The translators have been busy and we’ve got Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish books and DVDs on our shelves for those keen to part company with their wits. Up to now my fave mystery writers have been British for a bit of the dastardly, but I love a bit of scarily dark and god knows these people seem to spend a lot of their time in deep blackness, so no wonder they’re good at maliciously murderous moments mostly occurring in the long, long nights. These days it’s Håkan Nesser, Jo Nesbø, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Karin Fossum, Åke Edwardson that have me peeking through the curtains, locking the doors…

Cover of Frozen TracksStieg Larsson‘s Millennium series (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc) were the books that initially took me over to the dark side. In Swedish unsurprisingly the original title was Men Who Hate Women. Undoubtedly nasty, but utterly readable and unputdownable. There is a good reason they shot to number one in the bestseller lists. The main character, Lisbeth, a survivor, does her damnedest to balance out the injustices done to women in this series. I was rooting for her the whole way through. They’re violent but I still fully recommend them if you haven’t already been tempted. This despite being a complete wimp who would normally hide under the bed from such fiction.

Cover of The Girl with the Dragon TattooIf you don’t mind subtitles (and the brain adapts remarkably quickly to reading the screen and watching at the same time), The Killing could keep you awake for a while. But for me The Bridge is the best. Only two series so far. A body is discovered on the exact half way mark on the bridge between Sweden and Denmark, which brings in a police team from each country. Good characterisation of the cops and the villain, and the storyline moves well with twists enough for me to have accused all and sundry of being the murderer. I’m hoping like mad there will be a third. Excellent entertainment.

Not scary, but equally entertaining is a Danish TV political series, Borgen. Never dry, it’s a behind the scenes machination of several political parties and their leaders jostling for the best position and attempting to form a government after an election too close to call. Birgitte Nyborg, leader of one of the small parties, becomes the first woman Prime Minister of Denmark. A tough job and hard on the family life and relationships. She is dealing with crises, making policy, pondering who to trust, and handling the media. It certainly rang bells as we watched our various small parties jockeying to be the party that joins the big guys in Government. Compulsive viewing once you get who’s who, and what they want, sorted out.

Do you like your books and viewing slightly chilling and grisly? Is your current reading and watching becoming a bit tame? Fancy seeing something of Scandinavia (mostly in the dark)? Check out these titles and let me know what you think. Any other books / authors in the Scandi Noir genre that you’d recommend?