David Annandale’s Unabashed Guilty Pleasures


I am picturing, for these summer reading recommendations, the hoariest of summer location clichés: the beach. It’s a hoary one because it happens to be true, and I am, in fact, partly drawing on fond memories of uninterrupted hours of cottage reading  – two of these books are ones that I devoured in just that setting. Herewith, then, three genres, three novels, and an enormous heaping, healthful, Surgeon-General-mandated helping of violence.

Escardy Gap by Peter Crowther and James Lovegrove. When I stumbled upon this book in 1996, it was one of the most exciting reads this jaded horror maven had had in years. The basic premise – a dark carnival descends on the idyllic, eponymous American town – obviously owes a lot to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and the authors wear their influences with pride. The central narrative is, in fact, being penned by a novelist fighting his way though writer’s block. This framing conceit opens the door to all sorts of metafictional games, and such a move is risky – it could diminish the reader’s emotional investment in the threatened townspeople if one is too conscious of their constructed nature. Crowther and Lovegrove pull off their gambit with brio, providing the reader a feast for mind, heart, and… well… stomach. By this last, I refer to the absolutely unapologetic nastiness of the horror. While a lyricism very much à la Bradbury is present in the descriptions and the setting, the atrocities are visceral and appalling in a way that Bradbury never would have approached, and the pace unrelenting. This is a masterful fusion of the poetic and the savage.

Red Phoenix by Larry Bond. Tom Clancy’s co-writer on Red Storm Rising here joined forces with Patrick Larkin for his official debut, an epic techno-thriller about a second Korean war. One might say that this is the sort of read that would be a guilty pleasure if I felt at all guilty about my pleasure. Bond and Larkin’s prose style is meat-and-potatoes, but exactly right for this kind of novel, fulfilling the prime directive of keeping the action going. For my money, it is also a much more fun read than Clancy. The prose is smoother, the political editorializing less front-and-centre (thus rendering it easier for readers who don’t mutter in agreement with every pronouncement Glenn Beck makes to have a good time with the mayhem), and the techno-porn less excessive. Red Phoenix features plenty of lovingly presented machines of war, but provides just enough detail for the reader to understand exactly how and why everything is going boom, yet not so much that the story grinds to a halt. Are the characters particularly memorable? No, but that is not what this genre is about. Readers hungry for epic-scale combat, however, will be treated to a veritable orgy or war. Tanks, submarines, fighter planes – the entire panoply of mechanized destruction is unleashed. The descriptions of the battles are breathless, excruciatingly suspenseful, and always, always clear, a not-inconsiderable accomplishment in and of itself. Michael Bay, take note.

Eisenhorn by Dan Abnett. “Summer reading” books have a bit of a stigma hovering around them. The label has a certain euphemistic quality, implying that the books being read are somehow less worthy, by virtue of being sheerly pleasurable, than what, presumably, is being consumed the rest of the year. And if the beach book is subject to knee-jerk critical disdain, this is even more true in the case of  tie-in fiction. And if there are plenty of books that justify this prejudice, there are also many who show it up as a fallacy, and this is one of them. Set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe (and so springing from a table-top war game), this omnibus volume collects Abnett’s trilogy (Xenos, Malleus and Hereticus) and two short stories (“Missing in Action” and “Backcloth for a Crown Additional”) chronicling the career of Gregor Eisenhorn, Imperial Inquisitor. Abnett combines numerous genres – space opera, mystery, political thriller, war, Lovecraftian horror, Indiana Jones-style adventure, even a touch of Hitchcock during a delightfully old-fashioned train episode. But the result never feels like a patchwork. Eisenhorn’s narration is wry and witty, yet suffused with passion and pathos. This is cosmic adventure in the grand tradition, offering up a blisteringly fast read, elegance of style, and a satisfying emotional heft. And that is an enormous literary pleasure for all seasons.

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David Annandale

David Annandale's latest novel is The Valedictorians. He teaches film and literature at the University of Manitoba.