Darkness Falls – Robert Bryndza (2021)

This is the third book in Robert Bryndza’s Kate Marshall series.  Last time round I praised what I saw developing into a high-quality crime series.  This standard has been maintained.

I do feel, however, that there is a distinct change of tone in this book.  First in the series, “Nine Elms” was (too?) grisly and I felt the author’s reining in on this a little for “Shadow Sands” made it stronger than the debut.  Third book in and we have a fairly standard mainstream crime work with little of what made the first two so unsettling.  Perhaps the author feels he has put Kate Marshall through the wringer enough and here places the focus on a well-structured highly readable whodunnit.

At the end of “Shadow Sands” Kate and colleague Tristan were contemplating starting a private detective agency.  This has come to pass but with jobs few and far between they are also running a camp site in their Devon location, assisted by Kate’s teenage son Jake.  A missing female journalist cold case could be their saviour and help her distraught mother get some closure.  It soon becomes clear that the journalist was working on a story which might have caused her demise and this may be linked to a serial killer preying on young gay men.

As in the previous novels the relationship between Kate and Tristan is very strong and the author is right to bring the young gay male research assistant into clearer focus in this.  There were a couple of questionable motives here which grated just slightly but the pace builds nicely for an exciting last third.

I liked the change of tone in this book, it makes both the author and the series unpredictable – we soon tire of series which become formulaic.  Maybe some who found the first novel too dark to get through might like to revisit this series at this point.  I don’t mind whether the author goes back along the darker routes of the predecessors for the 4th novel.  I just know I will be wanting to read it.

Darkness Falls was published in December 2021 by Sphere and will be published in paperback on 29th December 2022.  The next in the series “Devils Way” is due to be published in hardback/ebook editions on 12th January 2023.

The Haunting Season – Bridget Collins, Laura Purcell, Elizabeth Macneal, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Jess Kidd, Natasha Pulley, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Andrew Michael Hurley (2021)

This creepy collection of eight short stories by the above listed authors first appeared in hardback in 2021 and has just been published in paperback in time for Halloween.  In fact, it is equally well suited to the winter months with a number of stories being set around Christmas with quite a bit of snow on the ground in the mainly Victorian settings.

I decided to read this because of this selection of authors.  I have only read books by two of them but the other six have certainly been on my radar and this proved a good way to try their writing out.  Both of the two I have read, Imogen Hermes Gowar and Jess Kidd have produced five star novels as far as I am concerned.

The time settings are explicitly Victorian apart from Andrew Michael Hurley’s tale which is modern.  They all have a Gothic/Classic Ghost Story feel.  I don’t think any of them would keep you awake at night, the creepiness is more atmospheric than horror.

Although I loved the idea of this book I can be sniffy regarding the short story format.  I’ve never really got to grips as to why this is but I rarely feel totally satisfied.  I suspect it is because what I like about reading fiction- the development of characters over time, multiple plot strands and the feeling of being on a journey with the author cannot be fully realised in the short story format.

These authors are ideal for such a collection as their writing style is not entirely dissimilar to one another.  All of them gave me some level of enjoyment and it is the story-telling and the actual plots that illuminated the strongest.  Best of the bunch, probably, not that surprisingly as it is the author I have read the most books by, is Jess Kidd with “Lily Wilt”, a tale of a Victorian photographer who falls in love with a corpse.  The author keeps it snappy (see what I did here…? Although the process of nineteenth century photography was hardly snappy) in short sections and writes with a relish and verve which is evident in her novels.  Runner-up could very well be Elizabeth Macneal’s dark Lyme-Regis set account of fossil-hunting where characterisation is strong and a wicked tale is spun.  Kiran Millwood Hargraves’ “Confinement” explores post-partum psychosis in a tale with echoes of the true crimes of baby killer Amelia Dyer very efficiently.  Andrew Michael Hurley’s tale is modern but reflects ancient traditions which reminded me I must get round to reading his breakthrough novel “The Loney”.  Natasha Pulley brings back her characters from “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” which would please existing fans and has urged me once again that I should read that novel.  New tenants in creepy houses forms the backbone of Bridget Collins and Imogen Hermes Gowar’s contributions and Laura Purcell uses supernatural elements in a satisfactory whodunnit in “The Chillingham Chair”.

This was a highly enjoyable read, even if it sometimes took me a while to get into each new tale but that’s more a reflection of me as a short-story reader than the writing.  I’m already excited that for 2023 we are being promised further stories with a Christmas theme from these eight contributors together with Laura Shepherd-Robinson, Susan Stokes-Chapman, Stuart Turton and Catriona Ward which could very well be a late 2023 highlight and gives me a chance until then to discover more of all these authors’ longer works.

The Haunting Season was published by Sphere in hardback in 2021.  I read the 2022 paperback edition.

And Away…- Bob Mortimer (2021)

Although I’ve really enjoyed a healthy amount of the work of Bob Mortimer over the years I probably wouldn’t have bothered with this best-selling autobiography if it had not been for his appearances on BBC TV’s “Would I Lie To You”.  I came to this series quite late and have been watching catch-up earlier editions almost daily throughout this summer, and one thing I’ve learnt, is that if Bob Mortimer is a guest you are in for a treat.  His anecdotes on incidents of his life (not always true as that is the nature of the game but usually so) made me want to find out more.

Some of these anecdotes make it to the book and are very representative of the life of Bob Mortimer.  Born in Middlesbrough in 1959 we get a childhood shadowed by the early loss of his dad, his eventual decision to become a solicitor until an invitation to see a comedy show at a South London pub introduced him to Vic Reeves and in the fullness of time led him to being one half (although he wouldn’t credit himself with an equal fraction) of one of the best-loved comedy duos of our time.

I think those “WILTY” guest spots where Bob allows himself to shine through and his downbeat fishing shows with Paul Whitehouse were significant in the germination of this book but central to it is his 2015 quadruple heart-bypass and recovery.  Alongside this narrative thread which continues for most of the book is the chronological tale of Bob’s life.

The latent hypochondriac in me found the health stuff unsettling and I might not have chosen to read this had I known it was so central but we know that this has a happy ending and the Bob who recovers is a person more at ease with himself.  For much it is a tale of chronic shyness, of not fitting in, of undervaluing achievements (Who knew that his acting in the BBCTV reboot of “Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) caused him such anxieties?) and yet coming much closer to calm, even a wisdom in his present life (well a wisdom that gets him to share; “As you age do not fear the elasticated waistband; it can be a good friend”).

His acknowledgement of the importance of comedy partner Jim Moir (Vic Reeves) is also central and it is here that the laugh out loud moments (not as many as I was expecting) tended to come.  There’s a good balance of the career and personal life which is something I always appreciate in a biography.

I really enjoyed spending time with Bob Mortimer and despite his self-effacing nature I felt he shared so well and I got a good understanding of him professionally and as a person.  You don’t get that in many celebrity autobiographies.  I’m delighted this book has been such a success.

And Away was published in 2021 by Simon & Schuster.  The paperback edition is now available.

The Hanged Man – Linda Mather (Joffe 2021)

It’s unusual for me to read a mid-series title without having read the rest but here is Book 4 of the Zodiac Mystery series by Joffe author, Linda Mather, a long running but intermittent series which began with “Forecast Murder” back in 1994.

Central character here is Jo Hughes, an astrologist currently running a workshop at Alcott College in the Cotswolds.  She is with the recently appointed CEO of the college, Aoife, when they discover Seb, the financial director, hanging in the woods.  Is it suicide?  Jo becomes obsessed with finding out when another staff member disappears at the same time.

I think this setting marks a shift in the series.  It seems from the support systems Jo uses that prior to this she has been assisting a Private Detective, David Macy, in Coventry.  He has moved into debt collection and the new working environment for Jo places her in the middle of the situation and provides a fairly open-ended set-up for future novels.

It doesn’t match the luridness of the title and it is not consistently gripping.  The hanging and disappearance occur early on before these characters are established so it is quite easy not to care that much about them.  The astrological aspect is a good idea, but apart from it giving the reason to be at the college it seems a little tacked on and a tad unconvincing.  But there’s probably not that many readers who come in at Book 4, so they will know what to expect from the author and most will be satisfied with this title.  Plot-wise there are not many twists but it read well and although I didn’t totally feel drawn in by Jo’s experiences at Alcott College fans of this series would be happy with its resumption.  If you wish to get up to speed with this series before the fifth book arrives the publishers have put together the first three in a set at a bargain price (currently £1.99 on Amazon).

The Hanged Man was published in 2021 by Joffe.

The Manningtree Witches – A. K. Blakemore (2021)

Winner of the 2021 Desmond Elliott Prize which is given to the best debut novel and a book I highlighted in my 2021 round-up of “Books I Should Have Read”.  At the time I mentioned “A quick look at Amazon reviews suggest some readers have not really got it which might make it a bit of a Marmite novel.”  Well, having now read it it’s time to reveal where I am on the love/hate divide and just like the actual yeast extract spread, I love it.

I do have a bias towards historical novels, 7 years of reviewsrevues have taught me this.  The 1640’s setting is going to tick boxes for me.  I also like it when there is a fiction/fact overlap, particularly in the use of characters (most existed here) and documentation.  The author weaves in (but does not overdo) statements from the 1645 Witch Trials.  I have a taste for darkness, and the work of the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins certainly brings that but perhaps the main reason I am giving this debut five stars might have been the reason it turned off some readers.  The language is rich, detailed and poetic, just occasionally over-wordy, this award-winning poet certainly came up with a few words I had never heard before.  I actually felt this added to the depth of the novel and enriched the sensory experiences such evocative language conjures up.

This is the narrative of nineteen year old Rebecca West, daughter of Anne, who has her own local nickname, the Beldam West, a good-natured woman who keeps an eye on the less fortunate including the ancient one-legged Old Mother Clarke, but who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.  Her occasional clashes with neighbours does not help her when Witchfinder Matthew Hopkins takes over the local inn and begins his puritanical interfering into the lives of these country folk in Manningtree, Essex.

Plot-wise we know what it going to come.  A group of women will be singled out and victimised and manoeuvred into confession.  Rebecca finds herself in this situation because of her mother and others she associates with and not even her blossoming relationship with Hopkins’ Secretary, Matthew Eades will help.

Characters are strong here, some of the women are adept at saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.  I felt myself both cringing and full of sympathy for them.  The author has avoided the stereotypical baddie in her creation of Hopkins which we might have expected from horror films (and some of the criticism aimed at this book has been because of this) but her depiction of him as misguided and hypocritical rather than out and out evil makes him seem more rounded as a character.  There is often black humour in the townsfolks’ dealing with him and the situations he brings about. 

The subject matter was always going to win me over but A.K Blakemore’s poetic recreation of this dangerous world was so rich.  The evidence sought to prove consorting with the Devil is ludicrous and the seventeenth century prejudice, hypocrisy and victimisation still resonates in this world we live in.  The author, in her Afterword, acknowledges areas of the world where individuals are still murdered because of accusations of witchcraft.  This is a potent debut.

The Manningtree Witches was published by Granta in 2021.

The Love Songs Of W E B Du Bois – Honoree Fanonne Jeffers

Attracting much critical acclaim in the US and an Oprah Book Club pick which ensures high sales this is a big book in terms of size and themes, coming in at just under 800 pages and an extraordinary debut from an award-winning poet.

It is both an epic saga taking in generations of an African American family from Chicasetta, Georgia and in a parallel first-person narrative an intimate, unflinching study of the youngest member Ailey, focusing in very close detail on her upbringing and academic studies.  A family tree at the front of the book is vital as one narrative begins with the Native American inhabitants of the land moving to the rise of the plantation and slavery moving through the generations slowly slotting things into place as Ailey begins her own studies of her family history.

The historical narrative is powerful, beautifully written and impressive.  This is a long book, however, and it does at time sprawl which can place demands on the reader.  This author loves detail and this is most evident in Ailey’s account which is so closely observed and meticulous in its detail.  It was here that I felt the odd twinge of frustration, especially in Ailey’s college years and her response to American academia.  However, this is a book which will leave the reader feeling changed, this long time spent in the company of Ailey’s family (you can’t rush through this book) will provide the reader with a change of perspective in terms of American history, race and feminism.

It never gets any easier reading about slavery and it is important that it doesn’t.  Ailey’s contemporary account highlights the more subtle forms of racism, including what is referred to here as “Black Tax” where the African-American has to work harder to achieve the same results.

I know I am not the intended audience for what the author unapologetically describes in her Coda as “a black feminist novel” and “undoubtedly a woman’s novel” but I was very impressed.

The Love Songs Of W E B Du Bois was published on 20th January 2022 by 4th Estate in the UK. Many thanks to the publishers and NB magazine for the review copy. This review, along with many others of recently published books can be found at the Review Centre on the NB website.

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 follows 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.

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!!

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.

Books I Should Have Read In 2021

It’s time for the annual namecheck for 10 books which I didn’t get round to reading in 2021 but I think I should.  Perhaps they are books I’ve intended to read since publication or titles that passed me by and which I’ve only found out about recently in end of year lists.  If a title makes this list it stands a fair chance of being read in the following year.  Since publishing What I Should Have Read in 2020 I’ve got round to reading 60% and do have the other 4 on my bookshelves ready to be discovered, hopefully, in 2022.  I must admit this list isn’t filling me with quite the same sense of excitement as last year’s did which may be seen as a negative but could also be because I’ve got round to reading more books that I really wanted to read during the year so I’m not having the same sense of having missed out.  Here are the ten titles in alphabetical order of author’s surname.

Will She Do?- Eileen Atkins (Virago)

This has proved to be the celebrity autobiography of the year.  While many celebrities churn out writing having barely lived much life, esteemed actor and Dame of the Realm Eileen Atkins has waited 87 years to produce “Act One Of A Life On The Stage” and what stories she will have to tell!  It has been described as being  “Characterised by an eye for the absurd, a terrific knack for storytelling and an insistence on honesty, Will She Do? is a wonderful raconteur’s tale about family, about class, about youthful ambition and big dreams and what really goes on behind the scenes”. This is what an autobiography should be.  I can’t wait to read it. 

Manningtree Witches – A K Blakemore (Granta)


A novel from a poet, this has appeared on a lot of best of the year lists and the subject of seventeenth century witch trials certainly appeals to me.  This book won the Desmond Elliott Prize for the best debut novel and I’m quite fascinated that it is being highlighted as a real sensory experience.  The trial follows closely the original transcripts which feels for me reminiscent of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s really impressive “His Bloody Project” which was gritty and combined history and fiction in this way infusing his account with poetic vibrant language. I may be barking up the wrong tree and A K Blakemore’s novel might not resemble this at all. A quick look at Amazon reviews suggests some readers have not really got it which might make it a bit of a Marmite novel.  I will have to read it to find out.  

The Heron’s Cry – Ann Cleeves (Macmillan)

I read and really enjoyed “The Long Call” this year, which was my introduction to Ann Cleeves’ writing and the first of her new Two Rivers series to go alongside her “Vera” and “Shetland” works.  The TV adaptation also had its plus points but did seem to deviate a little unnecessarily away from the feel of the book.  I’m kicking myself because after months of this being in high demand in the libraries where I work there was a copy sitting on the shelf,  I dithered because I have quite a bit lined up to read at the moment and he who hesitates truly does miss the boat (I’m strangling proverbs here to delay the inevitable) as when I went back for it the book was no longer there.  I think it might very well have been the perfect read for the gap between Christmas and the New Year but I won’t know!  I will seek it out in 2022.

Last Call – Elon Green (Celadon)

A True Crime title which I am really interested in reading.  It passed me by totally when it was published in March this year.  I saw a recommendation on an American site and thought it was only available over there but a quick look at Amazon shows it’s available in the UK from Celadon Books.  Subtitled A True Story Of Love, Lust And Murder In Queer New York this is another book with a great critical buzz including from Good Housekeeping Magazine who gave it a Best True Crime Of All Time nod.  It’s an examination of an elusive  serial killer in the 1990’s who targeted gay men.   It is a reclaiming of the victims, hopefully in much the same way as Halle Rubenhold reclaimed the victims of Jack The Ripper in “The Five“.  Looking at this book again I don’t know whether to just go ahead and buy it now or wait until the paperback is published at the end of May 2022.  It may feel like a long wait!

The Appeal – Janice Hallett (Viper)

Quite a bit of “the appeal” of this book is in the cover which called to me on a table of recently published titles in Waterstones earlier this year and that must have been the case for a lot of people as this debut clambered up the best-seller lists and ended 2021 as the Sunday Times Crime Book Of The Year.  We all need a bit of cosy crime and this is what I feel this book offers. It has the look and feel of a bit of classic sleuthing but with uses modern technology to unfold the narrative (through e-mails, text messages, even post-it notes) which offers a fresh twist.  It’s been called Agatha Christie for the 21st Century and I’ve certainly read a good share of the original this year with the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge and am looking forward to discovering this classic/modern combination. 

The Corfe Castle Murders- Rachel McLean (Ackroyd Publishing)


This feels a little of an odd choice for me, the start of a series of which the first four books seemed to have appeared already this year, which could be a case of the author churning them out but is more likely because of the difficulties involved in getting work published.  The author believes she is straddling the genres of the thriller and literary fiction giving us a crime series which will make us think.  DCI Lesley Clarke is transferred to rural Dorset, so a great geographical location.  Corfe Castle is such an evocative place to set a novel and is underused in fiction so this will provide a great starting point for the series.  The fact that, hopefully, the whole reviewsrevues shebang is upping sticks and relocating to Dorset in 2022 gives this an added appeal for me.

Mayflies – Andrew O’ Hagan (Faber & Faber)

I’ve read Andrew O’Hagan before and really enjoyed him (his 2004 echoing of the child star Lena Zavaroni in “Personality”) and since then his reputation has grown.  Although classed as fiction there must be enough of O’Hagan here for it to be classified as “autobiographical prose” which led it being awarded this year’s Christopher Isherwood Prize for books of this category.  Set in Scotland of the mid 80’s and present day this focuses on a group of teenage lads who form a strong bond. Its depiction of male friendship, rarer in fiction than you might think, has been applauded and is described as both “joyful” and “heart-breaking” which is not an easy combination to pull off and I am fascinated to see how well Andrew O’Hagan does this.

Final Revival Of Opal & Nev- Dawnie Walton (Quercus)

A book which made it onto Barack Obama’s Books of the Year list and has received fulsome praise from Kiley Reid, Ta-Nehesi Coates and Sara Collins, all whose books I have enjoyed.  I find the idea of music based fiction appealing even if, in reality, it does not always come up with the goods. Here we have a reunion between black punk artist Opal and British singer/songwriter Nev who team up in New York City in the 70’s and consider a 2016 comeback.  Presented as a fictional oral history by a journalist this was described by the NY Times as “A packed time capsule that doubles as a stick of dynamite.” 

 Burning Man – Frances Wilson (Bloomsbury Publishing)


D H Lawrence is an author who seemed to be going increasingly out of fashion and feeling irrelevant to our modern world.  Frances Wilson’s biography seems to be going some way to stop the rot and reclaim Lawrence for the modern reader.  Subtitled “The Ascent Of D H Lawrence” it has appeared on a significant number of Best of the year lists.  Richard Holmes described it as “a brilliantly unconventional biography, passionately researched and written with a wild, playful energy ” which makes it sound like a must.  As a teenager studying for A Levels and in the first year of my degree course I was a little bit obsessed with D H Lawrence whilst finding myself being challenged, frustrated and bored at times by his work. This felt like a new relationship with fiction at the time, that I did not always have to see eye to eye with the author. As an adult I have revisited him only periodically and I have been thinking of reading more of him to see what I think about his often strange arguments and beliefs with the hindsight of life experiences.  I think Wilson’s biography could be an excellent way to get back into his work.

Still Life – Sarah Winman (Fourth Estate)

I already have two unread Sara Winman’s on my shelves, “When God Was A Rabbit” and “Tin Man”, both of which have been recommended to me a number of times but seeing this book as the choice on BBC2’s “Between The Covers” makes me think I should get reading this author pretty sharpish.  The Australian booksellers Dymocks has named it as their book of the year.  A sweeping saga located in Florence and London, Helen Cullen from The Irish Times describes the author as “the great narrator of hope“, we could all benefit from a bit of that after this year!