Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.
This column’s theme: The Tip of the Iceberg: stories where characters discover the world they’re living in is way bigger than they’d originally thought.
So if you like:
Really original urban fantasy
The London Underground
Finding out places you think should exist somewhere actually do
Piers Anthony’s Xanth
You might like
Richard’s chance encounter with a girl on the run named Door leads him into a magical underground London, where the people pursuing her turn out to be just the tip of the iceberg.
“What you going to London for?”
“I’ve got a job,” he told her proudly.
“Doing what?” she asked.
“Um, Securities,” said Richard.
“I was a dancer,” said the old woman, and she tottered awkwardly around the sidewalk, humming tunelessly to herself. Then she teetered from side to side like a spinning top coming to rest, and finally she stopped, facing Richard. “Hold out your hand,” she told him, “and I’ll tell yer fortune.” He did as he was told. She put her old hand into his, and held it tightly, and then she blinked a few times, like an owl who had swallowed a mouse that was beginning to disagree with it. “You got a long way to go…” she said, puzzled.
“London,” Richard told her.
“Not just London…” The old woman paused. “Not any London I know.” It started to rain then, softly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It starts with doors.”
She nodded. The rain fell harder, pattering on the roofs and on the asphalt of the road. “I’d watch out for doors if I were you.”
Neverwhere was originally written as a six part BBC miniseries in 1996, but here it’s the rare case of the novelization being way better than the video, if only because I can guarantee the budget on your imagination is higher than what the BBC had. As for the writing, look, it’s Neil Gaiman, so you’re in for tight, really interesting storytelling and it’s a great starting point for his work. The setting for his shadow London dovetails nicely with the tube stops of the real one. Blackfriar’s station is a monastery, Angel station is simply divine, and if you don’t “mind the gap”…well, you were warned. With that as a background, there’s still the question of why there’s a price on Door’s head, and what that might have to do with her families’ unique ability to open portals between places. To say more would require dropping spoilers, but suffice to say there were some twists I didn’t see coming.
Or if you like:
The movie Repo Man
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers
Being punk AF
Vacuous Hollywood parties
You might like
A New York punk and an L.A. stunt woman, separated by decades, have similar experiences with disappearances, tar monsters, and people that just aren’t right. Of course, digging into this is just the tip of the iceberg.
“And finally, I should clarify: I wasn’t in shock. I had seen these things before. At least half a dozen times over the past few years. A lot of us had. They seemed to be coming after the gutter punks, the homeless, the junkies: anybody that spent a lot of time fucked up in dark alleyways knew about the tar men.
But all excuses aside, what I said about Debbie was selfish and callow. That’s the plain and simple of it. If it makes you feel any better, they were probably going to be my last words.
The dull brass gears in the sludge monster’s face were spinning faster and faster. The whine was reaching an agonizing pitch, like a jet engine mixed with a rape whistle, and it was, impossibly, getting louder. I turned to run, but the noise was doing something to my inner ear. My balance was shot. I dropped to my knees. Tried to cover my ears. No difference. The tar man was approaching, slow but steady. And my stupid, useless legs were ignoring me.”
The book has a converging narrative, one being a punk in 1977 New York who’s being confronted by strange disappearances, and the other being a stuntwoman/waitress in 2013 L.A. The interleaving works well with them having similar experiences, so at no point is the reader really ahead of the plot, waiting for the thing that everybody knows has to happen. The punk brings a believable nihilistic attitude towards everything (so this book isn’t for the easily offended), while the stuntwoman has a more reasoned approach to everything. The whole concept that is eventually revealed was interesting, and I thought the book had a solid ending, but there is definitely more to come as it’s the first book in a series.
Or if you like:
Either of the aforementioned books
Creeping surrealist horror
The unexpected intersection of biology and information theory
The movie Memento
You might like
A man with amnesia has to piece together his life and figure out what happened. Of course the answers he seeks are just the tip of the iceberg.
Okay. Just breathe, we’re okay.
I had no idea who or where I was.
This was no sudden revelation, no big shock. The thought had congealed itself under the gasping and the choking and even now, with my body coming back under control and the realisation fully formed, it didn’t bring with it any big horror or fear. Against all that physical panic it was still a small secondary concern, a minor oddity at the corner of things. What mattered most to me–a million times more than anything–was air, breath, the easy lungfuls coming and going now. The beautiful, heavenly, angel-singing fact–I could breathe and that meant I would live. Pressing my forehead down into the wet carpet, I imagined breathing mile after mile of smooth blue savannah sky as the last of the shudders worked their way out of my body.
I climbed carefully up onto my feet but the new angle didn’t do anything for my memory either. And that’s when the first real stabs of worry started to land.
It isn’t all coming back to me. I don’t know any of this at all.
I felt that prickling horror, the one that comes when you realise the extent of something bad–if you’re dangerously lost or you’ve made some terrible mistake–the reality of the situation creeping in through the back of your head like a pantomime Dracula.
I did not know who I was. I did not know where I was.
I’m actively angry that Steven Hall hasn’t written any books since 2007, and I haven’t been this upset about a lack of author’s works since Devil’s Cape and Vampire$. This book succeeds on all levels. What starts off as a typical guy-with-amnesia story starts taking unexpected yet logical turns that could devolve into random Cronenbergian horror…and yet somehow doesn’t. All of the weird pieces fit together seamlessly in this plot, and Hall really sells it, with well defined characters, sharp dialogue, and a creeping surreality that feels all too real. At points this reminded me of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Brockway’s Unnoticeables, and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash…but I can’t get into the why of it all without describing what’s lurking under the surface. Suffice to say this book has made it onto my short list of books I actively recommend.
So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments.