by Vianne Venter

“It didn’t take much to bring down the card house of civilisation. Just a few gusts and it was done, the balance tipped, the spell broken. Good citizens realised the lines that had shaped their lives were imaginary and easily crossed. They had wants and needs and the power to satisfy them, so they did. The moment the lights went out, everyone stopped pretending.”
From Issue 16 (Oct 2011)

Something Wicked’s fiction editor Vianne Venter gives us the gristle on her favourite reads of the year.

I recently subbed an article for a publication (which will remain nameless) that compared computer games to reading, and concluded that both are fine, as long as they are practiced in moderation. For real. It’s author would no doubt be most disappointed at the reckless abandon and lack of restraint I’ve displayed with regard to reading. It’s been a very good year for reading. Bizarrely, this is largely due to the birth of my daughter, which forced me to sit still for the first time in, well, my life really. Just about the only thing you can do with a baby sleeping on your lap is read – terrible, I know, but I bore my sentence bravely. The best thing I read this year was Justin Cronin’s The Passage. Until I read Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s how I got there:

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

I adored the 2008 Swedish film (which we saw here in 2009) and had been after the novel ever since, so when SW editor Joe Vaz gave me the book for my birthday, I couldn’t wait to start reading. The story follows twelve-year-old Oskar, who lives in the bleak Stockholm apartment block suburb of Blackeberg. Oskar is bright, sensitive, bullied and low on friends. Till he meets Eli – the new girl next door. Eli isn’t a girl at all of course, and her arrival in Blackeberg with her ‘father’ heralds the start of a series of bizarre, brutal and bloody murders. I can’t avoid telling you that this is a vampire story, but if you’re shopping for rose-tinted vamp romance, you’re very much in the wrong aisle here. Lindqvist has brought together horror, fable, vampire story and the darkest of crime fiction, executing it all with the skill of a literary master.

Perhaps because I live in Africa, I have a thing for stories set in cold climes, particularly where the snow and ice seem to seep into the characters themselves. Let the Right One In is frosty right through, peopled with beautiful, sad characters who all seem chilled to the bone, each trying in their own way to find warmth. The novel is magnificently crafted. (Even more so than the film, which, if you haven’t seen, you need to find and watch. Now. Shoo, go. Now.) It’s absorbing, well-paced and truly, truly frightening. Its triumph lies in the exquisite sensitivity of its portraiture – every character is fully complex and heartbreakingly mortal (well, almost). There are no unsympathetic villains or plastic heroes here.

Unfortunately for me, the book also crosses lines that the movie, wisely, doesn’t. Eli’s origins are brutal and horrifying, and I could have done without that chapter of the story. It’s far from out of place though – the horror is brutal and sustained, heightened by the humanity and vulnerability of the people it touches. Already a cult classic, Let the Right One In is strong stuff. Don’t pick it up lightly, but do pick it up.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

It wasn’t really fair of me to chase this one with Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, but it held up well. It’s silly not to mention, if you don’t know already, that Hill is Stephen King’s son. At the very least one is going in wondering how one plucks up the courage to write at all when your father has published 50 novels in less than 40 years.

Hill’s debut novel is a racer – riveting and blackly funny, it delivers the goods from the get-go.

Retired rocker Judas Coyne likes to collect macabre memorabilia – the stranger the better. So when an online ad offers to sell him a ghost – attached to a suit that comes in a heart-shaped box – it doesn’t take much deliberation for Judas hit the Buy Now button. And what do we know about the little boy who didn’t really believe in ghosts? Right. And then some. I didn’t enjoy Jude’s company much at first (you’re not supposed to) but Hill hit his stride and indeed peaked so early on, that I just had to see where he was going with it. He doesn’t disappoint. Heart-Shaped Box a blast of a read.

Check out Joe Hill’s surreal, funny-as-in-strange twitter feed to see what growing up with the master of horror does to a mind.

The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub

I wanted to slow down after that, so I was looking for something meaty, that I could chew slowly. Joe suggested an oldie but goodie – The Talisman. It took me a while to understand that Stephen King and Peter Straub’s 1984 epic was a fantasy, not a horror. And once I did it gleefully scared the pants off me. It’s a classic journey book in which twelve-year-old Jack Sawyer embarks on a quest to save the life of his dying mother. He has a long, lonely way to go, and he won’t find what he’s looking for in this world. Jack is a great character, and the supporting (and opposing) roles are fantastic. The parallel story worlds are beautiful and threatening, and the fairy-tale horrors of The Territories just heighten the menace of the monsters of our world.

I’m giving it a little break before I start the 2001 sequel, Black House, which is waiting patiently on my bedside table.

The Passage by Justin Cronin

Ah, bio-engineered beasties. This is one of my favourite post-apocalypse tropes – where some arrogant wise-ass decides to play God, hits a bunch of buttons on the evolutionary console and then stands around wringing his hands while humanity’s place on the food chain goes into freefall. It’s a great premise when it’s handled well, which The Passage is.

I knew almost nothing about The Passage when I started it on the strength of Sarah Lotz’s recommendation. I did know it was post-apocalypse fic though – my favourite Favourite. I’ve been smitten with this sub-genre since my mom gave me A Gift Upon the Shore by MK Wren when I was about 16. I think most post-apocalypse stories are essentially road books (as in road movies), where the final destination is nothing less than the survival – or not – of mankind.

In The Passage, a vampire apocalypse wipes out most of America, but that’s not till later. Technically, it’s both apocalypse and post-apocalypse, because Cronin has wisely chosen to get us re-acquainted with humanity before he wipes out the species.

Time Magazine’s Lev Grossman places The Passage alongside Stephen King’s The Stand and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (anyone else see a trend here?): “Like some power-mad scientist, Cronin has taken his literary gifts, and he has weaponized them.” I warn you, this is a very accomplished writer. He knows what he’s doing. That means two things – a: you’re in safe hands, you can relax and enjoy the trip, and b: when you’re nice and comfy, he’s going to gut you like a little fish. He starts out flaying the hide off you, and once he’s got your guard down, you’ll follow him to the end. There’s more action in the first 100 pages of this book than most get in from cover to cover, and The Passage is a hiccough shy of 1000 pages – vast, sweeping and brilliant. The ideology is complete and enthrallingly believable, and the creature design is great – Cronin’s vampires are strong, fast, and voracious. His characters are wonderful. Indeed, if the book has a flaw, it’s that one falls so hard for the characters in the first third of the book that it’s hard to invest as deeply in the people you meet later. (Some authors might have split the book into two, or even three.) Plus, it’s scary. One particular scene nearly made me drop the baby. I can’t wait to share it with you.

Here, have a taste:

“She dreamed. She dreamed of voices, and the Man. For some time of months or years she could hear the Man in the howl of the wind and the scrape of the stars if she listened just so, and it gave her a longing in her heart for his care. But over time’s passage his voice became all mixed in her mind with the voices of the others, the dreaming ones, both there and not there, as the dark was a thing but not a thing, a presence and an absence joined. The world was a world of dreaming souls who could not die. She thought: there is the ground below my feet, there is the sky over my head, there are the empty buildings and the wind and rain and stars and everywhere the voices, the voices and the question.

Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?”

The sequel, The Twelve, is due out in 2012. I absolutely have to know what happened to Anthony Carter.

 

The Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness

The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, Monsters of Men

I generally avoid back covers, but this one is a pretty accurate introduction to the premise, so here’s the blurb:

“Todd Hewitt is the last boy in Prentisstown. But Prentisstown isn’t like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else’s thought in a constant, overwhelming, never-ending Noise. There is no privacy. There are no secrets. Or are there?

Just one month away from the birthday that will make him a man, Todd unexpectedly stumbles upon a spot of complete silence. Which is impossible.

Prentisstown has been lying to him. And now he’s going to have to run…”

I can’t remember when last the world of a book seemed more real to me than my own, and had me stealing every opportunity to duck out of reality and read. Then I picked up The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. It’s deceptively charming and genuinely beautifully written. Take a look:

“Noise is noise. It’s crash and clatter and it usually adds up to one big mash of sound and thought and picture and half the time it’s impossible to make sense of it at all. Men’s minds are messy places and Noise is like the active, breathing face of that mess. It’s what’s true and what’s believed and what’s imagined and what’s fantasized and it says one thing and a completely opposite thing at the same time and even tho the truth is definitely in there, how can you tell what’s true and what’s not when yer getting everything?

The Noise is a man unfiltered, and without a filter, a man is just chaos walking.”

The first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy is a masterpiece of character and world creation, and goes a long way to reinforcing my love of so-called teen fantasy, which so often manages to pull off what it’s adult fic counterparts lose the scramble to be either worthy or popular – good story telling, the ability to make you care, the ability to tackle content that actually matters without getting its didactic head so far up its literary ass that the reader loses all emotional investment in the characters. That said, I would hesitate to give a ‘young-adult’ this book, because it leads to a very violent place.

Unfortunately, book one is not self-contained, the story doesn’t end there. So you have to proceed to the next instalment, and act two, The Ask and the Answer, is very dark. It’s about power, and the ugliness of war, and how it disfigures everyone it touches. Essentially, that’s what this is – a war story. Fortunately, I was too deep in by the time I realised that to pull out. Ness doesn’t spare his characters – he drags them through hell and gets plenty of blood on their hands. So much so, that I spent a large portion of the journey not liking Todd very much. But that is the point. Ness offers no pat solutions or easy redemptions. He exposes the wiring that connects resistance-in-principle to complicity-in-practice – the fears, ambitions, uncertainties, agendas, indecisions and inertia that make monsters of all men in wartime. For this message alone it is perhaps best placed in the hands of young readers after all.

In an interview with guardian.co.uk, Ness said, “If you’re telling [teenagers] how it should be rather than how it is, why should they trust you to tell a truthful story?” Fair dos, and I have to say the ending of book three, Monsters of Men, is pretty superb. I’m very glad I stayed for it. But it takes a lot of killing to get there, and the hero takes on too much damage along the way. It felt to me like there should have been two books, instead of three. By the time the ultimate redemption is offered, this reader for one, was no longer convinced anyone deserved it.

The trilogy has earned Ness multiple awards, including a Carnegie Medal and a shortlisting for the Arthur C Clarke award. Ness has a new book out, titled A Monster Calls. Lauren Beukes says “”Blew my head off. One of my favourite books of the year, emphatically about what storytelling is, devastating, beautiful, Wept and wept.” It’s on my wishlist.

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

“It didn’t take much to bring down the card house of civilisation. Just a few gusts and it was done, the balance tipped, the spell broken. Good citizens realised the lines that had shaped their lives were imaginary and easily crossed. They had wants and needs and the power to satisfy them, so they did. The moment the lights went out, everyone stopped pretending.”

The lovely people at the bookstore hadn’t read Warm Bodies, but said it was “just some sort of teen zombie story”. And it’s really not. It’s not ‘just’ anything. (Though I would give it to a teen reader with far less hesitation than the Patrick Ness trilogy, which was actually on the teen fic shelf, while Warm Bodies was on the Sci-fi/Fantasy shelf).

This is a beautiful book. It made me so happy. The chapter headings alone deserve some sort of award. And it’s funny! I dog-eared so many pages (yeah, I do that), just for the writing. So, yes, this is a zombie story. Very loosely, it’s about a zombie who starts having thoughts he shouldn’t – thoughts like maybe he shouldn’t eat that girl cowering under the desk.

It’s being labelled zombie romance, but as with most labels, that doesn’t cover it, and actually does the book a disservice. This is not Twilight with zombies, though it is begging to be made into a movie.

Here’s a snip of the opening:

“I am dead, but it’s not so bad. I’ve learned to live with it. I’m sorry I can’t properly introduce myself, but I don’t have a name any more. Hardly any of us do. We lose them like care keys, forget them like anniversaries. Mine might have started with an ‘R’, but that’s all I have now. It’s funny because back when I was alive, I was always forgetting other people’s names. My fiend ‘M’ says the irony of being a zombie is that everything is funny, but you can’t smile, because your lips have rotted off.”

My only complaint about Warm Bodies is that it seems to have broken my streak of genre fiction, simply because I’m struggling to find a novel that captures my attention the way it did. It also has a wonderful gimmick that I refuse to spoil for you because by the time you realise it’s there, you’ll be thoroughly hooked already, so it’s strictly bonus. Now don’t go and Google it and run straight into the spoilers, but once you’re done and smitten with this man’s writing, visit his blog – www.burningbuilding.com, where he’s posted a bunch of his short stories. I haven’t started on them yet, but I suspect they’ll begin to account for the accomplishment of this author’s debut novel.

If you pick up just one book off this list, make it Warm Bodies. It’s a quick read, and if it doesn’t put a smile on your face, you’re probably dead already. Buy it for someone you love.

Cabin Fever by Diane Awerbuck

Joe reviewed this short story collection in Issue#13, (http://www.somethingwicked.co.za/2011/09/cabin-fever-by-diane-awerbuck/) so I won’t carry on too much, but it really has ended my year on a high note. Awerbuck’s writing is lyrical, wry, dream-like, underwater-immersive and molasses-thick. I felt like I was wading up from the pages every time I had to put it down. It’s a special treat for Capetonians, because it’s mostly set here. But familiar settings become beguilingly strange beneath Awerbuck’s pen, and the lines between the real and the surreal blur like overlapping layers of watercolours. This author’s superpower is her gift for endings. Endings are hard to do, and I haven’t shuddered with delight at so many last lines since I first read Dorothy Parker’s poetry.

The book is beautifully structured as well. It opens in fresh water, with a cut, and closes in salt water, with a stitch. The journey between the two feels like listening to a well-compiled album in which one might meet friends and strangers. Some stranger than others. When a short story collection works, as this one does, it becomes a literary box of all sorts, and I can see myself going back to dip into my favourites in the years to come. If I had to choose just one, today, it would be The Boy Who Opened Doors, about a young graffiti artist who sneaks out at night. Or maybe “Mami Wati”, on the dangers of swimming in rock pools… Or, wait, maybe…

So now you know what I like. What are your recommendations? Let us know, in the comments below.


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Vianne Venter

Vianne Venter is a freelance writer and sub-editor for various South African publications. She served as story editor and sub for Something Wicked since its inception in 2005. She is also an artist and mother. She can communicate with inanimate objects, but only if they’re feeling chatty. In her spare time… oh, who are we kidding? What spare time?

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