Friday, 23 December 2011

Best of the Best (Part 3)

Well, we've had a year to read them and a bit less to go over the best of the best. This is Pulp Pusher's final instalment from those readers, writers, reviewers and bloggers who've been kind enough to get on board and let us know what they thought about 2011's top reads. Thanks to all.

Mark Billingh
am (Novelist)
I’ve been lucky enough to read some fantastic books this year. Standouts would have to include George Pelecanos’s The Cut. This is what promises to be the start of a new series and Pelecanos’s protagonist, Spero Lucas is certainly one that I want to see again. As always, the man’s dialogue is nigh on faultless and the family dynamics are beautifully drawn. I can only echo the praise that has been lavished on A Single Shot by Matthew F Jones, which completely blew me away as did the fabulous collection of short stories, The Outlaw Albumby Daniel Woodrell. Woodrell defines easy categorisation but has certainly not been writing anything that could be called “crime” fiction for several years. Yes, there is often violence or the effects of violence at the heart of his work, but above all he has a wonderful grasp of the natural rhythms of the Ozarks; its language, its seasons, its landscape. Very few writers can craft a sentence which stops you dead in your tracks, but Woodrell is one of them.

Stephen Leather (Novelist)
I'm a big fan of ex-cop turned thriller-writer Matt Hilton and loved his latest Joe Hunter thriller Dead Men's Harvest. When his pal is kidnapped by a gang of trained killers, Hunter is sure that it's a trap and that his friend is being used as bait. But that doesn't stop Hunter going to the rescue and as always the book is full of action and an awesome body count.

Kyle MacRae (Publisher)
I haven't read a thing all year other from Blasted Heath books (published, proposed and rejected). Not wishing to contribute to the traditional seasonal circle-jerkery, I will instead most heartily recommend Allen Carr's 'Easy Way to Stop Smoking: Be a Happy Non-smoker for the Rest of Your Life'. A timeless classic, the darkest of psycho-noir thrillers, and an annual treat for me (being a slow learner). Not exactly new in 2011, though. Hmm. Ok, Gun by Ray Banks. It's close to home cos we publish Banks but not this novella. Short, deceptively simple, beautifully written, unforgettable and disturbing.

Tony Black (Novelist)
I had very little time to read this year, so kept to the short stuff and a short novella by Allan Guthrie just blew me away. Bye Bye Baby is a thriller on the surface, but has much more emotional depth than you usually get in that sub-genre. The prose was spare and the story was beautifully paced throughout. Guthrie managed to hook me from the opening and I breezed through the book in one sitting. It's not what you usually expect from Guthrie, not at all, but I'm hoping he'll write more of this sort of thing in the future because I'll be stocking up on it.

Caro Ramsay (Novelist)
Glister by John Burnside was not a book I would ever have chosen to read and only did so because I was asked to review it. I was tempted by the words ‘its about murder, disease and decay.’ Right up my street I thought! It is not an easy book to read it’s lyrical rather than thrilling but it is incredibly atmospheric and doom laden. The experience of reading it has stayed with me long after I closed the book. If Munch’s ‘Scream’ was a novel, this would be it.

Heath Lowrance (Novelist)
It’s a hard choice, but I’m going with Tom Piccirilli’s The Last Deep Breath. It’s lightning-fast and noir to its black bones, with an intriguingly damaged protagonist. But what I really love about it is how Piccirilli pulls out all these ideas we have about noir fiction, shows us the undersides of them, and then deftly displays new ways they can be used. It was the first Piccirilli I ever read, and I spent a great part of ’11 catching up on him. He’s just uncanny and if you haven’t read him already you need to do so now.

Andrew Bergen (Novelist, journalist)
I brushed up against a couple of beauties - namely Steve Mosby's Black Flowers, with its intriguing multiple narrative structure, and the absolute romps that were 'Frank Sinatra in a Blender' by Matthew McBride and The Bastard Hand by Heath Lowrance.

With more of a sci-fi/fururist bent, I absolutely loved Yellowcake Springs by fellow Aussie scribe Guy Salvidge ... seems a few Australians are putting their sights on a possible (dark) future in store for our country.

Gordon Brown (Novelist)
2011 turns to 2012 and the book that’s had the greatest impact on me this year contains writing from two centuries ago. The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ought to have been something I read years ago. After all I write crime novels but, until my Kindle brought Mr Holmes into my life free of charge, the closest I’d ever been to the books was watching Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce defining the two key roles in black and white on my Gran’s telly.

Sir Arthur’s plots are old hat to today’s reader but still grip. The impossible crime – meticulously laid out by a friend/relative/acquaintance - detail rich but lacking an obvious solution. Holmes belittling Watson’s lack of insight and refusing, until the inevitable reveal, to enlighten his side kick. Clues that smell of scarlet fish. Twists that hide twists. Written from the put upon Dr Watson’s point of view. All in all a delicious recipe that set the tone for the world of crime.

Written in short story format the book has twelve stories all. Each a gem and despite the intervening decades still crisp, engaging and befuddling. Titles such as The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb, The Man with a Twisted Lip and, my favourite, the Red-Headed League (for no other reason than I’m a Ginger and at one point in the story the street is full of nothing but red heads) promise much and never fail to deliver.

If you haven’t done so grab a copy and vanish into a world where smog hid the baddies, the clip clop of hooves
foretold of danger and nothing is ever quite as it seems.

CSI Victoriana as it would no doubt be called if US TV executives had their way.

Oh and why have I called this ‘Beaten by three men and a women’? Because that’s how many people Sherlock admits to having been bettered by in his whole career.

Victor Gischler (Novelist)
All the Young Warriors by Anthony Neil Smith.

Grant McKenzie (Novelist)
Labels are a funny thing. In today's publishing world, people talk about branding an author, but what they're really saying is they want to find that neat little slot they can slide all of his/her books into. One of my favourites, Robert McCammon, was branded "Horror writer" back in the day when every publishing house wanted their own Stephen King. Unfortunately, this meant that as his talent grew and his writing muscles flexed, the slot didn't. Any thriller and mystery buff who hasn't read 'Boy's Life' or 'Mine' is missing out on two of the best in any genre. McCammon's latest, The Five, published by Subterranean Press blends several genres with the author's obvious love of music to deliver a chilling story of a never-quite-made-it rock band's final road trip before breaking up. Although the story isn't as unputdownable as some of his other work (perhaps the fault of a less interesting main villain so as to not overshadow the inner demons plaguing the band), The Five still contains passages of such perfect writing that it makes the rest of us hang our heads in envious shame. McCammon is beginning to burn bright again and I can't wait to read what he delivers next.

Jon Bassoff (Novelist)
I loved Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette. The prose is stark, written in an exceedingly detached point-of-view, and the protagonist, Aimee, is a beautifully nihilistic anti-hero. While loosely disguised as a crime novel, the book is a savage indictment of unrestrained capitalism and feels depressingly relevant. Despite its obvious political critique, the book never feels preachy, and we can’t help cheering for the murderous Aimee as she wreaks havoc on the high society of a small town.

Karen Chisholm (Reviewer)
Bad Signs by R.J. Ellory had better be it. Strange as it may seem from the blurb, it is a book about hope. Albeit brutally wrapped up in human frailty. Returning to themes that Ellory has explored in earlier books - this is the story of young men confronted with an impossible situation, informed only by a deprived and desperate background, and the choices that they make. Two young boys, half-brothers, raised by the same mother, witnesses to the same violence and experiencing the desperation and degradation of State Care together, who make independent choices when pushed to the extreme. Fuelled by their respective ages, tempered undoubtedly by their allotted "roles" in their relationship, Clarence (Clay) Luckman and Elliott Danziger fight their dark stars in their own particular ways. BAD SIGNS is not an easy book to read, it is, however, one hell of a very very very good book.

Mick McCann (Novelist, Publisher)
Don't tell anyone but I've read very little contemporary fiction this year. I got sucked into reading books that knocked on from my last, sell out book, a 'funky' encyclopaedia of Leeds. I'm can't mention Blowback by John Lake as I published it, Sports Book Of The Year Promised Land by Anthony Clavane, although fascinating and beautifully structured, whilst cleverly subverting the genre, is too factual to include, So I'll go for Black Flowers by Steve Mosby. First thing I'd read by him so I had no expectations. Marvelous plotting which twists and turns like a hungry squirrel looking for it's nuts in mid-winter. Narratives within narratives expertly linking across the plot to the living characters. Atmospherics to die for. From a writers point of view the craft of it left me jealous....almost. It's one of those books which hangs around long after you've finished it.

Col Bury (Author/editor)
Being a big fan of Simon Kernick, Mark Billingham and Matt Hilton, it would have been predictable for me to have chosen one of their novels. However, earlier this year I bought Stuart Neville's The Twelve to see what all the fuss was about. I'm a slow, analytical reader, but this debut novel flowed smoother than Guinness, and was just as dark. I grew up hearing all about 'The Troubles', and the IRA even bombed my city, Manchester. So, I was intrigued from the start as to how Stuart Neville would handle such a sensitive and emotive basis for a storyline. The answer was, exquisitely. He certainly knows his stuff, and in Gerry Fegan, he's created a protagonist of great depth with flaws aplenty. An ex-IRA hitman? How could I possibly empathise with his plight? Somehow, I did, so a hat tip to Mr Neville. I particularly liked the way he left it to the reader to interpret if the dozen ghosts who followed the protag' around were real, or whether Fegan was just a shot piss-pot two tootles short of shouting, "Cuckoo". I firmly believed the ghost were real, which is testament to the author's prowess. In short, it's one of the best novels I've ever read.

Patrick Shawn Bagley (Writer)
2011 was a hell of a good year for crime fiction. I read new novels by Christa Faust, Craig McDonald, Donald Ray Pollock and Scott Phillips, to name a few. The Big Names were out in force, but that’s nothing new. You can keep your flashy best-selling thrillers, buddy. I’ll reach for the grit every time, and I’m here to tell you Frank Bill’s debut short story collection Crimes in Southern Indiana was the down-and-dirty best read of 2011. Holy shit, this country boy can write. Bill has become one of my favorite chroniclers of hardscrabble criminal life. You won’t find any gozillion-dollar bank heists or art thefts here. Bill’s characters rip each other off just to put food on the table or to get out of town—and for good, this time, goddamn it. These people are corn-holed by society at birth and weighed down by bad luck and worse choices. I know them. You know them, too, even if you avoid meeting their eyes at the post office or the IGA. With Crimes in Southern Indiana, Frank Bill has spray painted his name in huge blood-red letters on the literary overpass. The rest of us can only look up and wonder how the fuck he did it.