Tuesday, January 09, 2007

My Top Ten Writers of 2006

On New Years Day I took some time out to look back on which authors I had enjoyed reading in 2006. I know how anorak that would sound to the non-reader but I’m sure present company will understand the quiet pleasure to be gleaned from browsing my shelves, handling the books again, recalling when I read them and what it felt like and placing the best of them on a table for closer inspection. This is the avid reader’s equivalent of the sports fans “review of year” show: which recall the best plays of the year.

At the end of my browse I realised that all the books on my table were genre novels: Crime, Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Fiction for Teens:

I love genre writing because it proposes a very specific contract between writer and reader. The writer will structure the novel within a formal framework that the reader knows well and will demonstrate their mastery of it but will also seek to innovate in ways that surprise and delight. The reader will read with attention, applying their knowledge of the genre to try and guess where the writer is going, picking up small nuances and references that add salt to the meat of the writing, and mentally applauding a well executed move or a new idea. The genre reader and the genre writer have the same kind of relationship as the audience at the Proms has with the orchestra: they share a language and a sensibility that allows them to appreciate each other.

I always read a lot of genre books but in most years there are two or three mainstream books that I want to pass on to others and say, “Read this, your life will be richer for it”. This year the genre books had crowed out the mainstream, perhaps because I’d found some new authors and had gorged myself on their back-catalogues. I confess myself guilty of binge-reading. So here’ my top ten writers for 2006:


Harlan Coben: especially “The Innocent” and “Deal Breaker”

Lindsey Davis: “See Delphi and Die

Janet Evanovitch: “Eleven On Top” and “Twelve Sharp

Barbara Nadel: “Dance With Death” and “Last Rights

Sara Paretsky: “Fire Sale

Science Fiction and Fantasy

E.E. Knight: The Vampire Earth series, starting with “Way of The Wolf

Maureen McHugh: “Mission Child

Terry Pratchett: “Going Postal” and “Thud

Children’s Books

James Patterson:Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment"

Philip Pullman: “Northern Lights”, volume one of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy

Seven of my Top Ten are writers that I’ve enjoyed for many years. They are like old friends who make you smile just by being there. I enjoy seeing how they’ve grown, what they still do well, what new things they’ve added. Some of the authors have worked with the same characters for many years. The risk is that the characters get stale and the plot lines get thin, but the best of them avoid these traps and keep things evolving.

There are three “new” authors on my list: Coben, Knight and Pullman. They are new loves you are infatuated with. Everything about them is fresh. They renew my faith that there are others out there who see the world in interesting ways and have the passion and skill to bring what they see to life.

My first new discovery of the year was E. E. Knight, creator of the “Vampire Earth” series. I took the opportunity to visit Barnes and Noble when I was on a business trip to Atlanta. They were promoting vampire books of all kinds. I picked up a few, put back the Ann Rice wannabees, and was left with a modern Vampire in story, set in the world or rock music, raves and SoHo art galleries that turned out to be fun but didn’t make the Top Ten and a book called “Way of the Wolf”. This book looked like a Western, was part of a Vampire series and was set in post-apocalyptic future USA. The cover alone was enough to make me want to put it back, but most US covers for SF and Fantasy books have that effect on me so I decided to give it a try. As it was part of a series, I took the next one, “Choice of the Cat” with me; just in case I enjoyed this seemingly over-rich mix. Within a couple weeks I’d ordered the rest of the Vampire Earth series, including the latest hard-cover volume.

In the Vampire Earth series Knight manages to create a frightening future where bad things happen to good people and sometimes good people do terrible things. In Vampire Earth action and inaction both have a price and the characters carry the scars of paying it. Knight understands war from the point of view of the soldier fighting it. He also understands war from the point of view of the Quisling profiting from it. Give the books a try. The early ones are fresh and engaging. The later ones are grim and compelling.

My next find was Harlan Coben, a crime writer out of New Jersey (What is it with New Jersey that it produces so much crime fiction and rock music?). My wife bought me “The Innocent”, one of Coben’s more recent books. The plot is complex without being incredible. There are lies within lies. And, something that appealed to the wordsmith in me, the meaning of the title kept changing as the book went on. What I was most impressed by was Harlan’s understanding of what secrets do to your life and that innocence, once lost, can never be regained. I tried a few more of his later books, all good reads but perhaps too heavily plotted and too violent. Then I went back to his early stuff and discovered a character called Myron Bolitar in “Deal Breaker”. Myron is an ex-athlete; ex-FBI agent turned Sports Agent who also gets pulled into detective work in league with his psychopathic ex-partner. This is classic gum-shoe territory and it’s delivered with wit, pace and a lightness of touch that I admire greatly. I liked the main character because he was surprising, complex and human. The book felt real, dealt with unpleasant things but still had a redemptive flavour that generated hope. The next book in the series is on my shelf, waiting to go.

The last new author on my last is the most exciting: Philip Pullman. Pullman is labelled as a writer of fiction for children but, like Rowling or Lewis or Nesbit, what he writes will capture an adult audience as well as shaping the way that a generation of children think. I’ve just finished “Northern Lights” (“The Golden Compass” in the USA), the first volume of “His Dark Materials” trilogy. I received the boxed set of the trilogy as Christmas gift from my wife and it certainly ranks as the best gift of the year. How many men approaching fifty would get a set of children’s books as a gift from their wife? I’m a lucky man to be known so well.

Everything about Pullman’s writing works: dialogue, world-building, action scenes, plot, character development are all masterful. But the exciting thing is that this mastery of craft is harnessed to a bold imagination, a passionate belief that how we treat children defines the worth of our society, a bone deep understanding of the nature of fear and courage and love and how inextricably they are linked and a willingness to address big themes that integrate physics, theology, politics and moral philosophy without ever leaving the reader behind. Pullman is never overtly didactic yet he can explain elemental particles and collapsing probability curves in a simple sentence or two

The heroine of “Northern Lights” is a young girl who Pullman describes as more prone to action than imagination. If her imagination was stronger she would not be able to act because she would be overwhelmed by an understanding of how hopeless her situation was. She is powered by a sense of mischief, loyalty to those she loves, and the need to act when she can. When she is overcome by fear, she gives way to it and then moves on because she must. Children will delight in this book. Adults will be left in awe of it.

OK, that’s my gush of first loves over with. Let me share the other authors with you.


Lindsey Davis: “See Delphi and Die”. I’ve been reading Davis’ books about Falco, a Roman informer, since the “Silver Pigs” back in 19XX. I associate them with slow, warm days on summer vacations. Davis’ plots are normally an excuse to explore a particular aspect of the Roman world. This one is about the tourism and Greek sports, and murder of course. There is always at least one murder. Davis has developed not just Falco but his wife and their family into engaging figures that we feel we know. Her research fuels the books but never spills over into a History Channel special. If you like Falco books, you’ll like this one as well.

Janet Evanovitch: “Eleven On Top” and “Twelve Sharp”

Janet Evanovitch, another New Jersey crime writer, has created a wonderful comic character in Stephanie Plum; the world’s most sassy and least competent bounty hunter. I enjoyed the first four or five Stephanie Plum books enormously but by book nine it looked like the idea was running thin and with book ten I almost gave up but books eleven and twelve bring Evanovitch back on form. Even if you’ve never read any of these books about the Trenton-based bounty hunter, these two books will have you laughing in no time.

Barbara Nadel: “Dance With Death” and “Last Rights”

I’ve read all of Nadel’s books about a Turkish Police Inspector called Cetin. I think they are some of the best police books in print. Nadel lets her character’s grow. Time passes for them from book to book. Each book tackles something about Turkish society. Her plots are strong and her writing is clean. “Dance With Death” the latest book in this series, would have been enough to get her into my Top Ten but what really delighted me this year is her new book “Last Rights”, set in the London Blitz and introducing Francis Hancock a shell-shocked survivor of the Great War who runs the family funeral business in the East End. Hancock is frail and magnificent: broken, brave and haunted. The world he inhabits is nightmarish and convincing. A good part of the fascination of this book is the depth of knowledge of the East End of London in 1940. I look forward to more books set here.

Sara Paretsky: “Fire Sale”

When I first read Paretsky’s V.I. Warshaski books in the 80s, it was a novelty to have a kick-ass female detective. VI was the embodiment of feminism, tough, competitive and fashionably dressed. Paretsky and VI have both grown up since then. Paretsky’s books have moved beyond feminism into a more politically aware exploration of the issues of justice, power and the unequal treatment of the rich. Paretsky’s writing is clean and clear. She creates memorable characters and sends a strong message without preaching. I left my copy of “Fire Sale” on a plane when I was three chapters in. It took me two months to track down another in Switzerland but I couldn’t leave the book unfinished. “Fire Sale” looks at the impact of organisations like Wal-Mart on the people who work for them and it pulls no punches.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Maureen McHugh: “Mission Child”

In a bookshop you’d find it in the Science Fiction section. In your heart I think you’d file it under „The truth about learning to live with being foreign“.

This is a book full of sadness. It is not one of those SF books that are filled with irrepressible optimism about the transformational power of technology, yet this is a redemptive quality theme in it.

The main character loses everything, her family, her clan, her identity, everything except her life. She comes to know the loneliness and isolation and tension of being foreign, of having a sense of yourself that no one will ever understand in the same way that you understand yourself. And eventually she comes to understand what it means to come home.

This told in clean simple first person prose, stark and true, that has an emotional power that seems as inevitable and unstoppable as a monsoon rain.

Terry Pratchett: “Going Postal” and “Thud”

Pratchett’s Discworld novels get better and better. Although his work is thought of as comic, at the heart of every novel is a serious idea. You get to the idea through complex plots, comic one-liners, and the conflicting perspectives of familiar characters. “Going Postal” looks at what is good and bad about the entrepreneurial spirit. “Thud” examines the hatred and misunderstanding across racial and religious divides. Both of them will make you laugh, lift your spirits, and keep you turning the pages but what lingers after you close the book is the sense that the world is more complicated than we choose to admit and that we should admit that choice is the most important thing we have.

Children’s Books

James Patterson: “Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment".

I got to know Patterson through his novels about Detective Cross: ingenious, violent, fast-paced thrillers that translate well to film.

"Maximum Ride" is one of his books for teens. Still a thriller. Not so violent but the violence that there is not glamorised. Very fast-paced. It's about a group of kids with wings who have escaped from the lab they were mutated in and who are being chased by were-wolf like Erasers".

This is a fun, easy to read, rapidly paced, action book that makes you think, makes you like the players, and never ever has you skipping text.

As I read it's like have wind under your wings -you soar on Patterson's skill. He never wastes a word and he never fails to deliver.