Happy New Year, reading and writing friends!
I’m already very excited for this year’s upcoming publications – Agency, the new novel from William Gibson is right around the corner, Iain Maloney’s memoir of life in rural Japan, The Only Gaijin in the Village, publishes in March, and I myself have a novel due out – but before we move on into 2020, here’s a quick look back and some of my favourites from last year.
This is not intended to be another ‘best of’ list, just a selection of highlights picked from the books I blogged about in 2019. With one exception (I had to, had to, include Dead is Better by Jo Perry), I only chose from those books which were published in 2019 and tried to skew towards indie publications.
Oh Baby Teeth Johnny With Your Radiant Grin, Let’s Unroll on Moonlight and Gin by Cat Hellisen (Shoreline of Infinity 14)
This short story could get on this list with that title alone but, fortunately, it also makes the cut because what follows the title is just as brilliant. This was one of the best short stories I read last year, maybe even the best.
Back in March, I wrote: “One the most original and stylish short stories I’ve read in some time. You’re dropped straight into a noir-themed afterlife, a kind of lucid nightmare world whose inhabitants are cobbled together from disparate memories, including title character Johnny, whose right arm is a gun and whose teeth are made from bullet casings.”
It’s noir, it’s fantasy, it’s surreal, and it’s absolutely unique.
Dead is Better by Jo Perry (Fahrenheit Press)
Last summer, I wrote: “An unconventional noir tale that takes us from the gleaming, skyscraper offices of the American elite to the homeless shelters of Skid Row. An indictment of a culture that values low taxes over universal health care – or any sort of safety net for society’s most vulnerable people – it treats its tossed aside characters, dog and human, with understanding and tenderness.”
Bonus, this is the book that introduced me to the excellent Fahrenheit Press, an independent crime noir publishing powerhouse and self-proclaimed love cult. I’ve gone on to read quite a few of the books it puts out and I’m especially loving its tête-bêche ’69 Crime’ novellas – particularly Perry’s contribution to that series. Dead is Better is as good a gateway drug as any, check it out!
(I had the privilege of being published alongside Jo in the Switchblade Magazine/Pulp Modern double feature Tech Noir last year. Have a peep and expect reviews soon!)
’Scapes Made Diamond by Shauna O’Meara (Interzone 280, TTA Press)
This was my favourite short story from a stellar issue of Interzone. In a facility where cattle-like aliens are slaughtered and dissected for their valuable organs, handler Graeyan discovers they are sentient and communicate telepathically through memories and visions.
In one of my holiday reading posts, I wrote: “This is a powerful and emotional tale, not only about human barbarism, but about love lost and missed opportunity. An editorial by O’Meara explains how the story was inspired by her work as a vet, experiencing up-close the bond between owner and pet and the inevitable heartbreak at the end of the line.”
The mixture of out-there creature sci-fi and intense human drama makes for a compelling read, and the overall feeling of sadness conveyed is hard to shift when it’s all over.
Daughter of Titan #2 by Richard Mooney
Daughter of Titan #2 by creator and writer Richard Mooney makes the list not only because it’s a cool Scottish indie comic involving a heady mix of superpowers, mechs, Lovecraft tentacle monsters, and paranoid, hallucinating augmented ex-cops, but because of how it has grown and changed since the first issue.
After issue #1, Mooney shook everything up, delivering a second issue with more focus and visuals that better suit the SF/horror subject matter – one of the biggest changes was bringing in new artist, Monika Laprus-Wierzejska, who moved away from the cartoonish style of the opening mag. While many authors get hung up on stylistic continuity, I like seeing how somebody’s work grows with them, especially when that person is unafraid to push themselves to improve and adapt.
At the end of summer, I wrote: “All in, another great series to follow in the exploding DIY comics scene in Scotland, enabled by crowdfunding. The downside to this model is a lengthy gap between issues, but when the quality is this good, I’m prepared to wait.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Mooney early last year, which you can read about here.
Snakeskins by Time Major (Titan Books)
With a plot twisty enough to match its title, Snakeskins by Time Major is a high concept fantasy tale set in an alternate, isolationist Britain that has found itself behind the times. We follow teenager Caitlyn Hext, one of a small group of ‘Charmers’ who produce short-lived clones every seven years, granting them unnaturally long lives.
Another excellent summer read, back in those long, hot (aye right) days, I wrote: “Excellent characterisation and a thrilling plot deliver an engaging study of identity and elitism… There’s definitely an interesting Brexit analogy to unpack here, which would be fun if the bleak reality of it wasn’t right around the corner.” Still true.
Snakeskins has just been deservedly longlisted for a BSFA award, as has Major’s short story ‘A Crest of a Wave’ which appeared in Shoreline of Infinity 15 alongside my alien bistro story Secret Ingredients. Now that is pretty cool!
Always North by Vicki Jarrett (Unsung Stories)
Cli-fi – or science fiction about climate change, if you prefer (and I get why you might) – is the most important emerging subgenre of sci-fi of the moment. While apocalyptic fiction was once written off as escapist fantasy, the climate crisis that becomes more apparent every day has made it relevant again, and Always North by Vicki Jarrett is right at the forefront.
Scientist Isobel heads to the Arctic circle to do a survey when an accident sets off a chain reaction of increasingly disastrous events. What begins as a survival story (a malicious polar bear stalks the ship over the frozen ice) quickly becomes something altogether bigger – and I really don’t want to say anything more because this is definitely one of those books where the less you know going in, the better.
In my review for Shoreline of Infinity 16, I wrote: “Complicity in our own destruction is at the heart of Vicki Jarrett’s novel, a climate catastrophe story that takes us from the barren splendour of the Arctic to the equally arresting vistas of the Cairngorms… The story slips and twists through various sci-fi subgenres, the altering terrain of the novel’s form itself an allegory for the climate change it’s describing.”
Killtopia #2 by Dave Cook and Craig Paton (BHP Comics)
The first issue of Dave Cook (writer) and Craig Paton’s (artist) violent, sweary, and often hilarious cyberpunk comic Killtopia made it onto my 2018 highlights list and the second issue is here because it’s even better.
This issue focuses more on Killtopia’s antagonists, called ‘wreckers’ – high-tech gladiators such as the mercurial and beloved Stiletto, and King Kaiju, a man sold to the Kaiju Kola Company as a baby and now a sponsored, decal-covered slave – and delivers some stunning scenes to boot. A recreation of Oldboy’s famous corridor-scrolling punch up scene is top class.
Not so long ago, I wrote: “It’s a joy to once again be in Cook and Paton’s Neo-Tokyo, the lurid colours popping off the page, the backgrounds stuffed with tiny, world-building detail and plenty of jokes… It’s brash, fun, exciting cyberpunk goodness with some timely social commentary on modern pop culture fandom. Bring on Wreck-Fest!”
The Kickstarter for the third issue will be up and running this year.