Devotion- Hannah Kent (Picador 2022)

That’s 3 out of 3 novels I’ve read now by Australian author Hannah Kent, a prospect I’d so anticipated that I highlighted this new title in my “Looking Back, Looking Forward” post.

Her 2013 debut “Burial Rites” recreated nineteenth century Iceland, incorporating Icelandic sagas into the narrative and a use of documents and reports which really impressed me but I gave the slight edge to 2017’s “The Good People” set in a nineteenth century Irish village entrenched with folklore and fairies in a dark, foreboding read.  It’s three good four star reads in a row as far as I am concerned but maybe if forced to rank them “Devotion” would be at number three.

We are still in the nineteenth century but we begin in Kay, a Prussian village and a small community of Old Lutherans facing persecution for their beliefs.  Amongst them is narrator Hanne, an adolescent who sees herself as “forever nature’s child” and as an outsider to the rest of the community content with adhering to the traditions of the forefathers.  Into this mix comes a new family, the Eichenwalds with mother Anna Maria, a midwife from outside the region, whose unconventional  treatments arouse suspicion and daughter Thea who recognises Hanne as a kindred spirit.

So far this feels like we are on typical Kent territory with her doing what she does so well evoking a small community battling with tradition and a fear of new ideas but this is very much a book of three parts, with a marked tonal shift in each.

The second part ramps up the adventure stakes with the community’s response to persecution and the third, with what happens afterwards becomes more lyrical, spiritual and poetic. Compared to her other novels this has the same focused intensity but here the plot events bring about a sense of space which gives contrast to the pressures of small space living

This is very much a love story between Hanne and Thea as suggested by the “Devotion” of the title and this is the unifying strength between the three parts.  This is touching, often heart-breaking and effectively conveyed throughout. 

There seems to be a 4-5 year gap between Hannah Kent’s novels, which always feel thoroughly researched and may explain this but her third novel should cement her reputation as a very good historical writer and will give new readers who come to her via this publication a chance to catch up with her work so far whilst waiting for her next book to appear.

Devotion is published in the UK on February 3rd by Picador.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Appeal – Janice Hallett (2021)

A book from my “What I Should Have Read in 2021” list. I could see the potential of what is being promoted as a modern day Agatha Christie but had slight concerns that its reliance on e-mails, text messages and post-it notes might make it gimmicky with the whole style over substance debate threatening.

I needn’t have worried.  If we are considering this debut in the “Cosy Crime” genre then this is the best “Cosy Crime” book I have ever read.  Normally, mid-way through this type of book my attention wanders and I have to pull it back for the ending which I either find satisfactory or not.  Here, I hung on every word, really focused on reading between the lines and found the whole thing extremely involving. 

The structure is watertight.  Written communication makes up the entire book, also including local press reports, police transcripts as well as the aforementioned means of modern messaging.  There’s a murder but not until about mid-way through and I loved not even knowing who the first victim was going to be. 

The novel centres around an amateur dramatics group about to embark on Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” and central character and bit-part player Isabel Beck is thrilled by the prospect.  This time she has introduced a new couple to the group, nurses fresh from volunteering in Africa.  Their dynamic challenges the established set-up of the group which revolves around the founding family, the Haywards.  Focus is switched when a small child becomes ill and the society needs to divert to fund-raising and that is all I am going to say about the plot.

The forms of communication (there’s lots of e-mails) allows for bias and unreliable narrators a-plenty.  Isabel is a great character who early on we glean comes across very differently in real life compared to her exuberant messages.

This book really had me thinking about minor plot details, spotting inconsistencies and having these confirmed or otherwise by the set-up of a couple of young legals reviewing the evidence.

I loved this and am fascinated where the author will go next.  This work seems a real labour of love and is so tightly structured.  It seems I won’t potentially have to wait too long as her next novel “The Twyford Code” has just been published.  It apparently follow along audio transcripts so she is approaching it stylistically in a similar style.  It will be interesting to see if she gets away with it twice or whether this book works so well as it is a fresh, original one-off.  But for the time being, this is an excellent work, my first 5 star read of the year and one that even though I now know exactly what went on amongst the Fairway Players I would be very happy to read (between the lines) again.

The Appeal was published by Viper in 2021.

The Heretic – Liam McIlvanney (Harper Collins 2022)

It feels a long time since 2018’s “The Quaker” which won this author the McIlvanney Prize for Best Scottish Crime Novel, an award named after his late father, William.

The action here has moved on, same Glasgow location but six years forward to 1975.  Main character Duncan McCormack has spent the years between working in London and returns to Scotland to head up the Serious Crime Squad.  One of his team, Goldie, has suffered repercussions from McCormack’s handling of the case that brought down The Quaker, another, Shand is in the pocket of the Detective Constable’s Superior and the third member, Liz Nicol, has been moved across from the recently disbanded women’s section to work with the men.  McCormack, himself, is secretly gay in a force where his homosexuality would not be tolerated and has abandoned a promising relationship in London, putting his work before his personal life.  All of this team are outsiders which brings interesting dynamics into play.

This is quite a lengthy crime novel coming in at over 500 pages and the case hinges around two warring gangs, the Catholic Quinns and those led by the Protestant Walter Maitland, who, in the time McCormack has been down South has established a strong grip on Glasgow’s Crime World.  A house fire looks set to start up tit for tat reprisals and a body turns up amongst the rubbish heaps caused by the refuse collectors’ strikes.

Time-wise, we’ve moved into “The Sweeney” territory, with little tolerance of anyone not a white heterosexual male but I’m not sure this bigotry and misogyny comes across quite as potently as it did in “The Quaker”.

The plot is always involving, taking ambitious turns and McIlvanney had me with him all the way.  I’m not sure whether this is a series which will continue and if so whether the author is happy to stay in this time period or envisages another jump with the next book.  I don’t think I was quite as enthralled as I was with its predecessor yet this is quality crime writing.

 The Heretic is published on January 20th 2022 by Harper Collins.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Heron’s Cry – Ann Cleeves (2021)

The first of my “What I Should Have Read In 2021” that I’ve got round to reading.  In that post I mentioned I was kicking myself because I saw a copy on the library shelves and was too slow off the mark but a couple of days later it was back again (must have been borrowed by a quick reader) and this time I didn’t hesitate.

This is only the second Ann Cleeves I’ve read but it is really evident that this is an author who knows exactly what to do with a crime series.  “The Long Call” had a murder which had great personal and professional implications for the protagonists which would have had long lasting repercussions (and this case is referred to a number of times in this book).  Here, things are scaled down a little with some echoes of what had been obstacles before, especially as regards to Detective Matthew Venn and his relationship with his local community arts centre manager husband, Jonathan, and the overlap between the private and professional within a small community.

The rest of Venn’s team, Jen Rafferty and Ross May have their roles beefed up a little but Cleeves’ handling of this ensures there’s not too much given too soon.  Jen, however, does find herself more central than she would like when a party she attend.s and gets somewhat inebriated at, is also one of the last sightings of a man who she thinks was chatting her up and is afterwards found murdered in an art studio.

This complex of art buildings, farm and large house, Westacombe, becomes the focus of an investigation which develops very nicely throughout to a conclusion I certainly hadn’t foressen.  It’s exactly the sort of follow-up I would have both expected and hoped for.  Cleeves handles the characterisation, subject matter and twists in the plot with consummate skill.

“The Long Call” did feel fresher and more rooted in its location and I would give it the edge but I felt that became more entrenched in my mind by reading the book and watching the TV adaptation (good but not exceptional) quite soon after one another.  The quality of this “Two Rivers” series is maintained and there’s loads of potential for more cases.

The Heron’s Cry was published in hardback in the UK by Macmillan in September 2021.  The paperback is scheduled to appear in February 2022.

Looking Around…….

For my last retrospective post, looking back over 2021 I like to have a look around the blogosphere and see the books which have impressed other bloggers during the last twelve months. I always expect that there is going to be a modicum of consensus and that there would be the odd book which appears on Best Of the Year lists time after time, but this is rarely the case and it certainly is not so for this year when there’s a wide range of books being recommended but not often the same book in more than one list.

I can usually find one of my Top 10 books in another blogger’s list but this year I have not been successful in discovering this. I might have thought that it was me, that I was out of touch, or that I’d read the wrong books this year but there are so many lists with no overlaps that I am certainly taking nothing personally!

There’s just a couple of titles I’ve seen appearing more than one list, both feature in the Top 5 of Jen at Books On The 7.47, Yaa Gyasi’s “Transcendent Kingdom” and Torrey Peters’ “Detransition, Baby” . Also on this list is one that I’ve highlighted as wanting to read (on my Looking Forward list for 2020), the Women’s Fiction Prize winning “Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke (I do it have sat on my Kindle waiting for me) as well as the non-fiction 2021 publication from an author I read for the first time this year, Bernardine Evaristo. and her “Manifesto: On Never Giving Up”. Megan Hunter’s “The Harpy” (I’m not sure if I’m thrilled or appalled by the front cover of this one) makes up a good-looking Top 5 here.

There have been a couple of nods to books that have made my Top 10’s in the past. Jessica at The Bookworm Chronicles has one of my former Books Of The Year “The Count Of Monte Cristo“, acknowledging that it took her 3 months to read in her Top 10, Jacqui Wine’s Journal has selected my 2016 #3 “Black Narcissus” by Rumer Godden, Bookish Beck has “Ethan Frome” by Edith Wharton (#7 in my 2014 list) on her Backlist reads and Kim at “Reading Matters” has “The Memory Police” by Yoko Ogawa my 2020 #4 in her list. She also has a couple of books that I read and enjoyed but which didn’t make my Top 10 this year, the Booker Prize winning “The Promise” by Damon Galgut, and “Mrs March” by Virginia Feito. These two are also on the Top 8 New Books list produced by Cathy at 746 Books who also has Ira Levin’s “A Kiss Before Dying” in her Books on her Shelf list. I really loved that when I read it as a teenager and must give that another go, especially as re-reading his “Rosemary’s Baby” was such a good experience. At “Reading Matters” I was also reminded me once again of a book that I’ve wanted it to read since I highlighted it pre-publication back at the start of 2019, Graham Swift’s Brighton Pier set “Here We Are”. There’s also a book from the 1930’s which I haven’t heard of before but which also is acknowledged at Jacqui Wine’s Journal “The Fortnight In September” by R C Sheriff based on a family holiday to Bognor, which sounds like it might be right up my street and worth investigating in 2022.

Margaret at “Books Please” went for another book I really enjoyed which didn’t quite make my Top 10 cut Ambrose Parry’s “Corruption Of Blood“. Also in her list is one which my very good friend and work colleague and Video Blog partner Louise had been recommending I read all this year, (she is always brimming with excellent recommendations as can be seen on our World Book Night YouTube posting which can be found here), I also know this is by Graham Norton’s favourite author, Mary Lawson, and her Booker longlisted “Town Called Solace”.

Many of the bloggers I’ve looked at seem reluctant to pick out their ultimate book of the year. Those that have include Bookish Beck who has gone for “Living Sea Of Waking Dreams” by Richard Flanagan, who I have still never read, Linda’s Book Bag has “Always In December” by Emily Stone, Andrea Is Reading has gone for the book which was also the Daily Telegraph’s Book Of The Year “Crossroads” by Jonathan Franzen, which seems to have generally split those I know who have read it, so it might be The Marmite Book Of The Year (love it or hate it). Fiction Fan’s Book Review’s Literary Fiction pick is Patrick McGrath’s “Last Days In Cleever Square”. There’s a dead heat at “Novel Deelights” between “Wolf Den” by Elodie Harper and “Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir.

On JacquiWine’s Journal’s aforementioned recommendations there ‘s one from my Books I Should Have Read In 2021 post “Mayflies” by Andrew O’Hagan as well as one I’ve recently bought “Passing” by Nella Larsen which brings back the quandary I am in as to which I should do first, read the 1929 novel or watch the 2021 critically well-received film adaptation which is on Netflix in the UK. Another that is waiting on my Kindle is a book which made Fictionphile’s Top 4, “Last House on Needless Street” by Catriona Ward together with a book the aforementioned Louise has said really gripped her between Xmas and New Year “The Searcher” by Tana French, an author I must certainly investigate this year.

So many links in this post! I think it’s important to link up some of us who are out there promoting great reads at the start of the year. Right, let’s get on with some reading!!

Looking Back…..Looking Forward

This is my end of year report, looking back at the 10 titles I had eagerly anticipated last year and seeing how many of them I actually got around to reading as well as picking ten more choices for 2022. In 2020 I got round to reading five out of the ten titles , in 2019 three out of the ten and four out of ten the year before. Let’s see how I did in 2021.

Memorial – Bryan Washington (Atlantic Books)

I read this in January, the month it was published, and it was my first five star read of the year and narrowly missed out on my end of year Top 10. I’d read Washington’s prize-winning short story collection “Lot” but this cranked up to a higher gear for me. The central male couple straddle cultures and the set-up leaves Black American Benson with his partner Mike’s Japanese mother, who he had never previously met, whilst Mike goes to Osaka to be with his dying father who had deserted the family years before. Cue much family tension and bonding over cooking.

The Prophets- Robert Jones Jnr (Quercus Books)

An astonishing debut which ended up as number 2 in my end of year list with its haunting appeal hanging over me from January for the rest of 2021. I said “it could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.” I hope this becomes a big seller in paperback when it is published later this month.

Girl In The Walls- A J Gnuse (4th Estate)

This was a four star read for me in March. Debut writers are really having to be original and inventive to stand out from the crowd and Gnuse certainly did this with his creepy thriller. 11 year old Elise lives in the space of a house she formerly lived in, now owned by a new family and their teenage boys. Nobody suspects she is there until a younger boy turns up unannounced to the house. This is a high-quality commercial thriller which will really have readers holding their breath.

Lamplighters – Emma Stonex (Picador)

This is a book that seems to have done quite well sales-wise since I read it in February. I’ve asked a few people who read it their opinion and it feels that it doesn’t quite match the expectations which readers have when starting it. I found it entertaining but it did not blow me away and I gave it a three star rating. The 1970’s lighthouse setting is great, as claustrophobic and intense as you might expect. A modern day narrative strand sets out to explain what is set up as a classic locked-room mystery. I said at the time; “After months of lockdown I think we are all in a better position to appreciate better Stonex’s writing and have stronger ideas of these lives than we would have done a year or two ago, making this a very commercially apposite proposition.”

Hot Stew-Fiona Mozley (John Murray)

I rated this three stars in March, an enjoyable urban tale which is very different from the author’s Booker shortlisted debut “Elmet” and I applauded the author for that. Early reviews compared to it to a modern day Dickens, I said of this. “It’s all likeable and in a way I can appreciate those that are seeing this as modern day Dickens but it all feels a little unresolved which Dickens would not be.”

Many Different Types Of Love – Michael Rosen (Penguin)

Read this in March and gave it a five star rating with it ending up at number 4 in my Books of The Year. I said “This was the best non-fiction work I have read this year. I’m not sure how ready I am to read about the Covid-19 pandemic, it might still be a little too much too soon but I was certainly prepared to make an exception for this collection of prose poems from a writer I very much admire who nearly became a Covid death statistic.” Moving, funny and with loads of heart from Rosen and those who cared for him.

Kitchenly 434- Alan Warner (White Rabbit)

This one passed me by. It got good reviews so I will hopefully get round to this butler and rock star tale. This year saw a well-received film adaptation of the book of Alan Warner’s I’ve read which I love “The Sopranos” retitled “Our Ladies” which suffered from multiple rescheduling because of the pandemic which I also haven’ t seen but hope to do so.

Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead (Fleet)

Like Fiona Mozley, here was an author who did something very different, with this book I rated three stars in September, an understated crime novel which featured on quite a few end of the year lists but I think perhaps my own expectations were a little too high which led to me feeling a tad disappointed. I said “I found plot development a little stop-start and the novel does not flow as well as I would have hoped.” 

People Person – Candice Carty-Williams (Trapeze)

This was scheduled for September but didn’t materialise. I’ve seen it listed on the BBC news website “Books To Look Forward To In 2022” and it is now due for publication at the end of May.

Diary Of A Suburban Lady – Lucy Mangan (Souvenir Press)

Retitled “Are We Having Fun Yet?”, I certainly did when I read it in September and rated it four stars. Written in diary format, I said  “It is a very commercial work, written in a genre where fans will be loyal and supportive, it feels fresh and contemporary, so it’s a shrewd move which could sell very well indeed.” The paperback is due in June.

Woo-hoo! That’s 8 out of 10 read and one of those I couldn’t read because it hasn’t been published yet. Here are ten more titles which have attracted my attention pre-publication and I will certainly be looking out for in 2022.

The Heretic – Liam McIllvanney (Harper Collins) ( due out on 20th January)

Follow-up to Scottish Crime Book Of The Year “The Quaker” which I read back in 2018 which introduced DI Duncan McCormack in a late 60’s Glasgow setting. This location was the setting for my current Book of The Year. Could McIlvanney’s Glasgow make it two in a row? This book shifts forward in time to the mid 70’s. Last time round I was impressed by the feel of the period and the character of McCormack so this is certainly one I want to read.

Devotion – Hannah Kent (Picador) (due out on 3rd February)

It’s been five years since Hannah Kent’s last novel “The Good People“. “Devotion” is her third, I’ve read both her others and have given them four star ratings. Set in Prussia in 1836, I’ve found Kent’s previous works to “be saturated with the feel of the times” so expect real authenticity in its setting. We are being promised “a stunning story of girlhood and friendship, faith and suspicion, and the impossible lengths we go to for the ones we love.

Love Marriage – Monica Ali (Virago) (due out on 3rd February)

This is Monica Ali’s 4th novel. I haven’t read her, inexplicably, since her most famous novel, 2003’s “Brick Lane” ended up as runner-up of my favourite reads of 2004. Featuring doctors as the main characters this is being touted as “a story about who we are and how we love in today’s Britain – with all the complications and contradictions of life, desire, marriage and family. What starts as a captivating social comedy develops into a heart-breaking and gripping story of two cultures, two families and two people trying to understand one another.” That description certainly get the thumbs up from me.

Flicker In The Dark – Stacy Willingham (Harper Collins) (due out on 3rd February)

A debut book already picked up for a television adaptation. This is a tense, edge of the seat thriller. I don’t actually read that many of these but there is something about this Louisiana swamps set serial killer tale which I find very appealing. I like small town mentality in my thrillers, where everyone knows everything about everybody and apparently this book will really deliver on this. Author Jeffery Deaver has said of it; “Author Willingham takes us on an unstoppable journey through the psychology of evil, and of courage (in many senses), all told in a pitch-perfect literary style.”

A Good Day To Die – Amen Alonge (Quercus Books) (due out on 17th February)

Another debut with a big buzz, the first in a British crime series which will feature a character called Pretty Boy and his desire for revenge. It’s being talked about as a British version of “The Wire” and we can expect it to be gritty, brutal yet full of dry humour. The author is currently training to be a solicitor but might find himself needing to change the day job if this book really takes off in the way some suspect it will.

Mother’s Boy – Patrick Gale (Tinder Press) (due out on 1st March)

A Cornish historical novel from a writer who can really impress me and who is a great storyteller. I think, judging by what I’ve read it is a fictional account of the life of poet Charles Causley focusing on his war experiences. His last novel, 2018’s “Take Nothing With You” was the best of his books I have read and featured in my 100 Essential Books strand. I hope this will be as good.

Mouth To Mouth- Antoine Wilson (Atlantic Books) (due out on 3rd March)

Lots of praise for this American author’s first novel already. The story of an author who wants to find out more about a man’s life he saved. Andrew Sean Greer who wrote “Less” which won him both a Pulitzer Prize and a four star review from me says it is; “the best book I’ve read in ages. Narratively ingenious, delicately written, intriguingly plotted, it is literature of the highest quality. I see you now, dear Reader, with this novel in your hand and already losing track of time “ That is an impressive recommendation.

Memphis – Tara M Stringfellow (John Murray) (due out on 7th April)

A debut from African-American writer who here explores three generations of a Memphis family. It comes with a recommendation from my runner up for Book Of The Year author Robert Jones Jnr who describes it as having “an endearing and unforgettable cast of characters who find strength in vulnerability, safety in art, and liberation in telling the truth.

Young Mungo – Douglas Stuart (Picador) (due out on 14th April)

The author of my Best Book of 2021 looking to make it two in a row. A love story between two men from working class Glasgow- one Catholic and one Protestant. The publishers are promising “a gripping and revealing story about the meaning of masculinity, the push and pull of family, the violence faced by so many queer people, and the dangers of loving someone too much.” Considering how well everything was handled in the Booker winning “Shuggie Bain” I have high hopes for this one.

Theatre Of Marvels – Lianne Dillsworth (Penguin) (due out on 28th April)

A debut from a Black British author. I love a Victorian London setting and anything with a hint of the Gothic and here the author is said to come up with the goods in her tale of an actress from Crillick’s Variety Theatre. The author has an MA in Victorian Studies and early reviews are praising her ability in bringing the setting and location to vivid life. There’s a real buzz about this author and this book which will continue to build up to publication.

That’s 10 books to look out for all in the first four months of the year with that date of 3rd February looking like a good one for book-lovers. Here’s to lots of good reading in 2022!

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2021- The Top 5

Happy New Year! I’m celebrating the start of 2022 by having a look back at my favourite reads of 2021. Those I rated between 10 and 6 can be found here. On with the Top 5!

5. The Echo Chamber – John Boyne (Doubleday 2021) (Read and reviewed in July)

No stranger to my end of year Top 10, John Boyne wrote my 2017 book of the year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” (2017) was runner-up in 2018 with “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” (2006) and also made it to 4th that same year with his 2018 “A Ladder To The Sky“. These were all very different books and this biting comic satire was also very much a departure and inspired by social media response of his YA novel “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica“. This is an author who loves to take risks and I like that. Reviews, have unsurprisingly, because it is such a departure, been a little mixed and I can understand why some people have thought this fell short of what they were expecting from Boyne. I however, stand by my description of it as “a great comic novel of our time which should provide a great tonic for these strange times we live in“.

4. Many Different Types Of Love – Michael Rosen (Penguin 2021) (Read and reviewed in March)

This was the best non-fiction work I have read this year. I’m not sure how ready I am to read about the Covid-19 pandemic, it might still be a little too much too soon but I was certainly prepared to make an exception for this collection of prose poems from a writer I very much admire who nearly became a Covid death statistic. His writings on his illness and recovery are interspersed with extracts from a diary those caring for him maintained to show him how much they cared. I said of this “These people were exhausted, often redeployed from their usual job and no doubt stressed beyond belief but they made the time to communicate with this comatose man in this way and these diary entries form an extremely moving section of the book.” There’s much humour in the darkness and when I read this on the anniversary of the first lockdown I felt strongly that; “When we are moaning about lockdown restrictions and posing conspiracy theories it’s important to feel the voice of those affected and Michael Rosen’s experience speaks for the thousands who have been similarly affected and for those thousands we have lost.” This was a title I had highlighted from the start of the year and I did think it would end up as one of the year’s biggest sellers, with numbers comparable to Adam Kay. This hasn’t happened which suggests that maybe we are not all totally ready for this yet but it will be a lasting testament both to the man and the times in which we have been living.

3. The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (Dialogue 2020) (Read and reviewed in June)

Here’s one I kept flagging up before I got round to reading it. I featured it in my “What I Should Have Read In 2020” post and in my “Looking Around” post so I was building up the expectations. It delivered. Two twin girls escape their small time life for a new home in New Orleans. One eventually returns to her home town whilst the other is “passing” as a white woman in a decades-spanning saga. I felt that “There are so many discussion points in this novel regarding identity that one might expect it to feel issue-driven but no, plot and characterisation are both very strong and that together with its immersive readability provides an extremely impressive rounded work.” Over the past year I’ve selected it for reading groups and have recommended it probably more than any other book. I always ask what people think of it and it’s always a thumbs up- however, there are often reservations voiced about the ending, and I do agree with them.

2. The Prophets – Robert Jones Jnr (Quercus 2021) (Read and reviewed in January)

An astonishing debut. When I read it I was convinced that this would be my book of the year and posted it within my “100 Essential Books” strand. It’s a book which has got the odd nod from awards committees but hasn’t swept the board winning awards as I had expected it to. I was convinced a Booker nomination would be assured but it was not even longlisted. The paperback is expected in the UK in late January and hopefully this will generate the serious sales this book deserves. I said this slave plantation-set novel “could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.” Don’t just believe me, check out the Amazon reviews where it has 61% five star and 22% 4 star which is excellent going for a book which is demanding, poetic and at times overwhelming. Extraordinary.

1. Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (Picador 2020) (Read and reviewed in April)

2020 was the year that the Booker Prize judges got it exactly right. I’d become a little wary after the year they awarded it to “Lincoln In The Bardo” (I must stop harping on about that!). I featured this in my “What I Should Have Read In 2020” but this year this book’s reputation has continued to grow as more and more people have fallen in love with it. It’s another I’ve selected for reading groups throughout the year and admittedly, some people are never going to give it a go, put off by its working class Glasgow 1980’s setting but those who do generally praise it to the skies. And deservedly so, as this study of a relationship between Shuggie and his mother has provided us with two of the most memorable characters in modern fiction. I said “It’s gritty and raw but at its heart is an incredible beauty and humanity which even when the reader is dabbing away tears of sadness, frustration or laughter is life-affirming.”  I cannot wait for this Scottish author’s second novel “Young Mungo” which is due in April. This is the first time in nine years I have awarded my Book Of The Year to a UK writer. Douglas Stuart deserves his place in my own special Hall Of Fame. Here are my other top titles going back to 2008.

2021- Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (2020) (UK)

2020 – The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (2018) (USA)

2019 – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018) (USA)

2018- The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845) (France)

2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)

2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)

2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)

2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)

2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)

2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)

2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)

2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)

Special mentions for the three five star reads which did not make it into the Top 10. “Next Of Kin” by Kia Abdullah (2021) just missing out on two consecutive Top 10 recommendations by the narrowest of margins, Bryan Washington’s “Memorial” (2021) and “Love After Love” by Ingrid Persaud (2020).

Here’s to some great reading in 2022.

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2021- Part One (10-6)

So, here we go, time to look back on another strange year to see which books made the greatest impression upon me in 2021.  This Top 10 is not just based upon books published this year. (3 out of the 10 were, which seems to be par for the course as that has been the same proportion for the last couple of years). If I read it during 2021 it is up for inclusion.

This year I read 64 books which is a typical figure but a bit down on my Good Reads goal of 70. Like last year 13 books have made the five star rating level, which means once again that some of my five star reads will not make it onto my Top 10 of the Year. There were 28 four star reads and 23 books I rated three stars. Like last year there was nothing I rated below three stars. I think with all this reviewing experience I’m less likely to choose to read duff books. Gender-wise, my Top 10 has a 50-50 split. It is perhaps a more diverse list than previous years with 40% black authors and 30% identifying as LGBT+ Like last year there are two non-fiction titles and like last year they are broadly speaking, autobiographical. Three of the authors have featured in previous year Top 10’s. There are two debut novels.

Right, here is the first part of the list, numbers 10-6.  If you would like to read the full review (and I hope you do as these are the books I’m really prompting you to find out more about) just click on the title.

10. Bond Street Story – Norman Collins (Collins 1959) (Read and reviewed in July)

Good luck with finding this one as like nearly all of this British author’s (1907-82) work it seems to be out of print. It’s the second year in a row for Collins and even though this is not quite up there with last year’s #2 read “London Belongs To Me” (which is more readily available as a Penguin Modern Classics) this tale of lives in a London Department store, the family who own it, the staff who work there is still a captivating read. I’m going to be on the look-out for more Collins to read next year. Perhaps some enterprising publisher could commemorate the 40th anniversary of his death by re-publishing more of his work.

9. Goodnight Mister Tom – Michelle Magorian (Puffin 1981) (Read and reviewed in May)

I took advantage of this children’s classic’s 40th anniversary reprint to read this for the first time. I know this is a special book for many people, in my day job at the library we often get adults requesting it to read to their children and I think it is now established as an important book in children’s fiction. I said of it; “It was one of those books where my vague ideas about it had cemented into what I believed was fact but I was often wrong.  I knew it was a tearjerker but what I had always thought occurred never actually happens.  The twists and turns of the plot were quite a revelation for me.” If you’ve never read it I urge you to seek it out, if you have read it you will know you probably want to read it again.

8.The Whites – Richard Price (Bloomsbury 2015) (Read and reviewed in February)

I’ve now read two Richard Price books and both have made it on to the Top 10, this is another under-rated author. His 1974 debut “The Wanderers” was my 2014 Book Of The Year and 41 years later he is still churning out gems. The title refers to those who have got away with murder which obsess a group of NYPD members past and present. It’s hard-boiled American crime, which I don’t always go for but characterisation here is so strong. Stephen King summed it up perfectly when he described this book as “grim, gutsy and impossible to put down.”

7. Dreamgirls: My Life As A Supreme – Mary Wilson (Arrow 1987) (Read in January posted in February)

This was a re-read of a book I have read I have read a couple of times before but not for years. I think it is one of the best showbusiness autobiographies, with just the right balance of career and private life and the career is extraordinary. It was written alongside ghost-writers Patricia Romanowski and Ahrgus Juilliard but benefits because Mary was a keen diarist and that ability to access details is evident. Tragically, on the day I set aside to post this review the news was announced that Mary had suddenly died (authors and publishers, don’t let this put you off asking for books to be reviewed, the two events are not related!) I did wonder whether that would result in this book being given a new lease of life but that has not happened.

6. Sing, Unburied, Sing- Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury 2017) (Read and reviewed in August)

Critically acclaimed in her homeland. Mississippi resident Jesmyn Ward made history with this book when she became the first Black American writer as well as the first woman to win a second National Book Award for fiction. This is a powerful, haunting read. I described it as “a Southern-set contemporary novel enriched with the rhythms and the sense of folklore, rhythms, spiritual beliefs and history of the community”. The reason why this had such a powerful effect on me as a reader is due to the quality of the writing and story-telling which really drew an initially resistant me in.

Next post: The Top 5

A Year Of Agatha Christie – A Reading Challenge Round-Up

Before my decision to sign up for the 2021 Read Christie Challenge at agathachristie.com I hadn’t read a book by the world’s most famous crime writer for some 16 years. I’d first discovered one of her works when I was around 12 and browsing in the little bookshop which had opened in our school at lunchtimes and provided a valid excuse for being out of the cold playgrounds. The first book I bought was “And Then There Were None”, admittedly, it did have a different title then in the UK and a lurid cover which made me approach the book as if I was going to be reading horror and would need the lights on at night. The out and out chills did not happen but I loved the structure of this book, the one by one killings,a new experience for someone fresh from children’s literature. I think this was probably the first book I’d read which was intended for adults.

I read quite a few more from the Christie canon moving into my early teenage years but then only the odd book until 2002 when I thought I’d start again with “The Mysterious Affair At Styles”, I read another two of her books over the next couple of years but then nothing until tempted by the Challenge. TV wise, I’ve never watched an episode of “Poirot”, nor Joan Hickson’s celebrated “Miss Marple” although I’ve watched the Margaret Rutherford films a number of times and the more recent ITV adaptations with Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie. I have never watched any of the big Hollywood adaptations of her movies but have watched the odd one-off BBC productions. I wouldn’t class myself as a Christie fan, as I’m all over the place with what I have read and seen and what I haven’t. I thought the 12 books which would be recommended to me by the organisers of the Challenge might change that. It has certainly pushed the author up to number two in my most read authors list.

Although 2021 is not quite finished I think I can say that none of the Christie titles are going to end up in my Top 10 books of the year but as she has formed a significant part of my reading experience this year I thought I’d give these titles their own moment of glory as I look back at what I have read and which impressed me the most.

My Top 5 Christie Titles from the Read Christie Challenge

5. A Pocket Full Of Rye (1953) (May’s Choice)

I said of this Miss Marple novel; “I thought I’d picked up on the clues and sorted out the ending but I hadn’t, so there is the pleasure of Miss Christie outfoxing me again.” 

4. The Sittaford Mystery (1931) (December’s Choice)

This snowy stand-alone was a perfect way to finish the Challenge. I said; “There’s a lightness and a great energy to it which made it a quick, perfect over-Christmas read”. 

3. Murder Is Easy (1939) (April’s Choice)

Another 30’s novel which is actually classed as a Superintendant Battle novel, although he does not contribute a great deal. I said; “I like the feel of this book, the location and characterisation gives it stronger atmosphere and the folklore slant offers us suggestions of darker forces at play and even of satanic orgies in the woods.”

2. The Murder At The Vicarage (1936) (July’s Choice)

I seem to be showing a clear preference for 1930’s Christie and I said; “It is set in St. Mary Mead and was the first novel to feature Miss Marple, not in a central role but she certainly knows what’s going on and I’m not surprised that Christie saw her potential as a recurring character.”

1. Death In The Clouds (1935) (October’s Choice)

There were 6 1930’s recommended titles in this year’s Challenge and I’ve placed four of them in my Top 4 positions. Even more surprisingly, for me, this was a Poirot novel. I’d come to the Challenge thinking I wouldn’t like the Poirot books much. However, of this I said; “The set-up is simple and yet the work seems more substantial and involving.”

And the Christie which really didn’t do it for me…. Well, I didn’t actively dislike any of the books but perhaps the one which most missed the mark was a collection of short stories which shows that Christie did not always have the magic touch in the 1930’s. Of Parker Pyne Investigates (1936) I said; “I felt the stories tended to blend one into another probably because Christie struggled to establish much in the way of characters within the short fiction format.”  

So, that’s the year-long Reading Challenge wound up. I mentioned in my last blog post that I am probably going to give it a miss for 2022 but the team at agathachristie.com have already got some good categories lined up so it is certainly worth signing up for. You never know, by mid- January I may be missing my monthly fix of Christie and might find myself signing up for another year.

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – Month 12- The Sittaford Mystery (1931)

The year-long Agatha Christie Reading Challenge for 2021 rounds up with a book set in bad weather.  The recommended title was this 1931 stand-alone and for me, it was one of the stronger of the Christie titles I’d read this year.

There’s a lightness and a great energy to it which made it a quick, perfect over-Christmas read.  The bad weather is snow which has cut off the Devon hamlet of Sittaford.  The Willets, South African mother and daughter and recent tenants of the big house have invited some of the other inhabitants for a get-together and during a playful séance a murder is predicted.  When that comes true and a relative of the deceased is arrested, Emily Trefusis arrives in the area to prove the accused’s innocence.  She joins forces with an ambitious young reporter who has arrived to present a resident with a competition prize to find out who the real murderer was.

The séance adds a bit of the supernatural to the proceedings which I actually like in Christie (it was also evident in another of her 1930’s novels “Murder Is Easy” which I also really enjoyed this year).  The amateur sleuths are investigating alongside Inspector Narracott who is not convinced the police have the right person in prison.  There’s well-paced to and fro-ing, as the weather improves, from Sittaford, the nearby village of Exhampton and the city of Exeter.

Emily proves a lively, spirited and very convincing character, enlisting the support of other residents to help crack the case.  You can sense Christie’s approval of her which is not always evident in her characterisation.  This book was a strong finish for the Reading Challenge.

I think for the time being a whole year of Christie is enough (these 12 books have moved the author up to number 2 in my most read list) but the Reading Challenge is gearing itself up again for 2022.  You can find out more at agathachristie.com.  For my next post I am intending to look back at my year of Christie.  I’m thrilled that I have completed the challenge (especially as I am probably going to fall slightly short on my Good Reads Challenge to read 70 books in 2021).

The Sittaford Mystery was published in 1931 by Harper Collins.  I read a paperback edition part of the 1930s Omnibus which also includes “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?” “And Then There Were None” and the aforementioned “Murder Is Easy”.