Five Favourite Reads: 2016

International New YearWe do this every year for the Unthank School of Writing Blog. The idea is not to choose books published in the last year, but to simply pick five favourites read in the last year. These are mine…

Writing this list is beginning to feel like a Christmas tradition, alongside the good single malt and the seasonal ghost story. As ever, reading for pleasure has been mediated and muddled by research and editorial work, and I honestly couldn’t tell you how many books I’ve read in the last year. I reckon I spend at least four hours a day reading, so you figure it out. Our house looks as if it’s built out of books and I think I might have a problem; a storage problem, obviously. Like Desert Island Disks, I think these lists have to mean something to you personally, so rather than selecting based on originality, literary quality or immediacy, I’m just going to tell you briefly and honestly about five books that have really put a hook in me this year.

Comrade of SteelSuperman: Red Son written by Mark Millar and illustrated by Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett. As noted this time last year, I read a lot of graphic novels; they’re my default when I need to get lost but can’t focus on a page of text anymore. I treated myself to Red Son after finishing a huge editorial job, though a little late as it was released in 2014. It’s not necessarily the best graphic novel I’ve read this year, but it’s the one that’s stayed with me, probably because it’s so fantastically high concept, and also because I love Millar’s writing. This is the guy that wrote the Kick-Ass! tetralogy, a Watchmen for the Facebook generation that I expect to come true anytime soon. Red Son is a DC ‘Elseworlds’ story, an irregular series of alternative interpretations of iconic characters, in which instead of crash-landing in Kansas in 1938, baby Kal-EL (the future Superman) falls to earth on a collective farm in the Ukraine. He is raised a good communist, becoming Stalin’s equivalent of the nuclear deterrent when he goes public, the ‘Comrade of Steel and the Worker’s Utopia.’ It’s such a brilliant idea that it doesn’t really matter where Millar takes it, but one of the reasons it’s lodged so firmly in my mind is that Lex Luthor becomes US president. Otherwise, Red Son is worth the cover price for the wonderfully over-the-top Russian version of Batman, a dissident anarchist Cossack in a blood-stained costume and a Ushanka fur hat fighting the global revolution with Rorschach-like fervour. Soviet Wonder Woman is pretty cool, too: ‘There is only one Superpower now…’

Susan HampshireNeither the Sea nor the Sand by Gordon Honeycomb. This one’s a relic from my childhood, originally published in 1969. Honeycomb was probably best known as an ITV news anchor, but he was also an actor (RSC), playwright and prolific novelist; he died last year, aged 79. Neither the Sea nor the Sand was His first novel; I had not previously read it, but it was nonetheless responsible for some major nightmares when I was a kid, because my best friend’s mum read it, and insisted on telling us the story late one night on one of my first sleepovers. (I don’t know what it was about our mothers! Mine did the same to me after going to see The Exorcist when I was nine, and let me read her copy of Jaws the following year. I’ve never felt right swimming since.) The premise is somewhere between Hammer and Mills and Boon, and not a million miles from an EC horror comic, although terribly English and played completely straight. It is a love story, in which one of the lovers dies but refuses to leave, an ambivalent level of consciousness remaining inside his now silent and decaying corpse. (There was also a movie adaptation starring Susan Hampshire, which wasn’t very good.) Since Mick’s mum vividly described this state of lumbering undeadness all those years ago, I have been haunted by the image, though never able to lay my hands on a copy of the book, which became an out-of-print collector’s item I could ill-afford. The title had been sitting in my Amazon wish list for years, peaking at about fifty quid, when I noticed quite accidently that someone was selling an ex-library copy for a fiver so I snapped it up. Like most cultural artefacts remembered from childhood, it had not aged well. The rather passive, diegetic style did not do the premise justice, and the protagonist is called ‘Hugh,’ but I nonetheless read with a morbid fascination, and still rate it as a bit of a gothic gem: not as well-known as it should be because it was ahead of the pulp horror boom and occult craze of the early-seventies by three or four years. ‘Neither the sea nor the sand will kill their love/Nor the wind take it in envy from them…’

To continue reading, please click here

For last year’s list please click here

You can also find Ashley Stokes’ list here

Happy New Year…

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