Charlotte takes us on a tour of her 2019 in books.

The grand total

My various totals of books read for 2019 were as follows:

  • Fiction: 40 books of which 6 were a re-reading (and not including the short stories I read for submission)
  • Audiobooks: 39 books of which 32 were a re-listening
  • I also read 6 books for research purposes (I don’t count those that I dip in and out of, so technically there’s probably more)
  • I ended up abandoning 6 books

Some people debate whether listening to an audiobook is the same as reading it, but I would argue that it is. After all, a world history of oral storytelling would be immediately set aside as irrelevant if you couldn’t say you’d experienced a story by listening to it rather than reading it yourself.

Great reads of 2019

Of all the books I read, a few definitely stood out for me. I started reading some Paul Tremblay books, as he’s one of the biggest names in horror at the moment. I also got to interview him at Fantasy Con 2019, and it’s always wonderful when the author of books you like turns out to be a great person as well.

I had to read The Cabin at the End of the World as part of my role as a juror for the BFS Awards Horror Novel category. I thought that the book was different, full of energy, and well-written, but I must admit it wasn’t to my taste. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock was an intense, well-paced read, which I thought was going to be a mediocre to good book – until I got to the last page. Now it’ll be lodged in my memory forever.

However, by far my favourite book by Tremblay has to be A Head Full of Ghosts. Tremblay is a founder of the Shirley Jackson awards and so his books can never be considered for an award themselves. However, I’d say that this has to be the most Jackson-esque book I’ve read for some time. It constantly keeps you guessing as to whether the possession is real – when Marjorie says it is, I believe her; when she says it isn’t, I still believe her. I suspect this book will go on my “Great Re-Reads of 2020.”

A book which surprised me was Scary Stories for Young Foxes. Billed as a children’s book, it really is quite terrifying. There’s this idea that if you present children with stories about animals, you can explore serious issues you wouldn’t be able to touch in literature with a human protagonist because there’s a comfortable distance between the human and the animal world. Heidicker really takes this idea and runs with it. The vulpine protagonists are in peril from page one and they face cannibalism, crocodiles, and rabies.

My only negative point about this book is the inclusion of Beatrix Potter as a taxidermist. I can see what Heidicker was getting at, that not everyone is as they seem, but I still feel that if he was going to make such claims about a real person, they should at least be based on a grain of truth. I couldn’t find even the slightest rumour that Potter was interested in such a pastime, but I’m willing to be proved wrong if anyone can provide me with evidence.

It was also pure delight to read a brand new (to me anyway) novel by Frances Hardinge: A Skinful of Shadows. As ever, Hardinge presents us with a protagonist that we just can’t help but love, and the concept was brilliant. I’m looking forward to Deeplight making its way to the top of my TBR pile in 2020.

In preparation for having Christina Henry on our podcast, I got copies of all her previous books and fell head-over-heels in love with two of them in particular. In the interview, Henry was very clear that she didn’t write reinventions of fairy tales – she took a story and made it her own. Nowhere is this more obvious than in The Mermaid and Lost Boy.

In The Mermaid, there’s no singing, no talking crabs, and no one called Ariel. If you’re a fan of the original Hans Christian Anderson story, then there’s no sea foam either. What there is instead is a thoughtful novel about what it means to be different in a world where freak shows are abundant. Henry has a go at incorporating the real-life figure of PT Barnum into this tale, and check out our interview with her to find out the challenges associated with that.

I make a habit these days of never studying the synopsis of a book immediately before I read it. This is easier in the days where you download something onto your Kindle in March and don’t actually get round to reading until about October. With Lost Boy, I read the simple Amazon synopsis which only really mentions that Peter Pan is a liar and didn’t go much further into it than that. I had no clue as to who Jamie is until about two-thirds of the way through the book. As such, I think I got to experience a unique reading of the novel, completely blind as to what the subtext was. It is now firmly fixed as one of my favourite books and I recommend you do as I do: read the brief synopsis, download the book, and then read it.

Great re-reads of 2019

Every year, top of my re-read (or re-listen) list is always going to Terry Pratchett. I must listen to each audiobook on a yearly basis, if not twice a year in some cases. In 2019, I was also able to re-read Mort as the BFS sent me a gorgeous hardback copy to review. You can find my thoughts on it here.

I also re-read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. I’m thrilled that there’s going to be a third book out this year named The Mirror and the Light, although given that it’s based on historical fact, I’m guessing it doesn’t have a happy ending…

I read Doctor Sleep, the sequel to Stephen King’s The Shining. Doctor Sleep deals with the later life of Danny Torrance. Sequels to huge hits – particularly when they are published so long after the original – can be a dicey affair. But I was thrilled to discover that Doctor Sleep is just as good as its predecessor. I will admit to hating the Kubrick film version of The Shining, so I’m intrigued to watch the movie of Doctor Sleep to see how that compares with the book.

For the third time, I returned to the excellent HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. In fact, it was so great, that I also bought it in November as an e-book gift for a friend of mine. I just love how the whole town lives with this horror on a daily basis. Although the ending is a little bit like Pet Semetary (another of my favourite books – go figure), I have to say that the beginning and the overall set-up is like nothing else I’ve read. It’s fascinating to see the mindset of the different characters and how everyone deals with an ever-present terror in their own way.

If you want to read my full review of the novel, then one is published over on the Ginger Nuts of Horror website here. While I love this book without question, I am always curious to know how it read in its original Dutch before the whole story was moved to small-town America.

Books I had to abandon

One of the things that I had to force myself to learn was that it’s okay to stop reading a book because you don’t like it. This is a tough principle to learn after most of us have been forced to suffer through books we hate because they were on the school curriculum. But as I’ve gotten older and time is less available, I find myself being more relaxed about giving up books.

I’m afraid that I had to pass on Tad Williams’s Tailchaser’s Song. It was an unusual and marvellous world he’d created, but I found that it was just too strange. The weirdness of all the cat names and rituals was so ever-present that the story got a bit lost among the fine details. If you’re looking for a book that delivers a cracking story from an animal’s point of view, I’d direct you to Scary Stories for Young Foxes above.

The Ghosts of Sleath by James Herbert was my final abandoned book of 2019. I read Haunted in mid-December. Strictly, I think it should class as a re-read because the plot was so familiar that I think I’ve read it before. However, I couldn’t remember a thing about the novel and loved every second of the story. On that basis, I downloaded The Ghosts of Sleath and dived into it. You couldn’t get two more different books. I found the sequel lacked suspense, the events were all broken up and happening to other people (rather than to the protagonist to whom I’d grown very attached), but worst of all for me was the POV character of a girl who had been sexually abused by a family friend as a child – and she was trying to deal with the fact that she’d enjoyed it.

I’m no child psychologist. I don’t know if there is a percentage of children who, however guiltily, enjoyed the physical side of their abuse. But even if there is, I don’t think it’s justified to include it in fiction. Child abuse is a serious and controversial subject but I personally believe that, whatever the truth about this particular aspect, putting it into a book glamorises abuse, and I couldn’t finish the book on that basis.

On a much lighter note, there was one book that I was loathed to put down but found I just couldn’t finish. The Wild Hunt by Caractacus Plume was just so wonderfully weird and full of energy that I was instantly drawn in. I really wanted to love this book, but many times, the writing just got out of hand. There were typos everywhere and some of the language just didn’t fit the characters. There was so much over-the-top description and action that it distracted me from what was a really excellent concept.

This is the one time that I was so very sorely tempted to contact the writer and offer my editorial services, but such a thing is so arrogant that I couldn’t bring myself to do it. However, since there seem to be seven books in the series so far, I’m guessing the author is pretty happy with the direction he’s going in. If there’s ever an edited reprint, I would certainly go back and give The Wild Hunt another go.

If you want to see if this book might be for you, check out Vicky Garlick’s review over on the BFS website for a more balanced review.