All The Dangerous Things – Stacy Willingham (Harper Collins 2023)

Stacy Willingham impressed with her debut “A Flicker In The Dark” (2022), a twisty Louisiana-set thriller with skilful misdirections and careful plotting.  All this is evident in her second novel which I think I enjoyed even more than the debut.

Isabelle Drake, a freelance journalist, is facing a year since her three year old son was snatched from his bedroom by speaking at a true-crime convention in the hope that someone might come up with unforseen evidence.  On the way home she meets Waylon, who can provide the opportunity for new perspectives on the case.  Isabelle’s family has been shrouded in secrets, from her childhood and her relationship with the husband she separated from since her son’s disappearance.

This is an intense thriller with the author drip-feeding us information which shifts almost continually how we perceive events.  The author states she has written it as an acknowledgement of the weight of motherhood, having to go it alone with feelings that might not feel normal but are in terms of blame and guilt and responsibility. 

I like the Southern setting, the characterisation, the touches of gothic, neighbours who seem to appear out of nowhere, the stifling heat and the boggy marshes.  This is a strong second novel.

All The Dangerous Things will be published by Harper Collins on 2nd February 2023.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

My Father’s House – Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker 2023)

I am shamefacedly admitting I knew nothing about the inspiration for Irish writer Joseph O’Connor’s new novel – Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, a Priest based at the Vatican at the time of Rome’s takeover by the Nazis who was responsible for the saving of some 6,500 lives through the Escape Line, which ran from the neutral Vatican City, housing and hiding soldiers, escaped Prisoners Of War, Jews and others the Nazi regime took against.

This is a fictional account which leads up to a mission, known as a Rendimento, planned for Christmas Eve 1943.  O’Flaherty was supported by a group who met on the pretext of choral singing and some of these are interviewed in the early 1960s and their accounts of what happened runs alongside a third person narrative.  O’Connor writes beautifully with multi-sensory descriptions being layered to build a picture of events and the tale he tells here is involving and often thrilling.  He seems more at pains to ensure we know we are reading fiction than the average historical novelist.  I might be wrong here but from a quick glance at the true events online I think he has changed the identity of the main threat to the mission, a German officer who viewed O’Flaherty as his nemesis.  If this is so, this fictional creation allows the author greater freedom in portraying the evil within this man.

Monsignor O’Flaherty is the lifeblood of this novel but I think I might have appreciated further fleshing out of some of the supporting characters within the choir.  From their interviews I wasn’t always clear who was talking and this narrative structure removed them slightly from the action although I do acknowledge that anonymity at this time was a prerequisite for survival.

I was impressed by this strong novel but I must admit that it didn’t quite get me the way the author’s evocative recreation of a Victorian theatrical world inhabited by Bram Stoker in 2019’s “Shadowplay” did which made it into my Top 5 Books of that year.

My Father’s House will be published on 26th January by Harvill Secker.  Many thanks  to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Mysterious Case Of The Alperton Angels – Janice Hallett (Viper 2023)

Janice Hallett’s sparkling debut “The Appeal” ended up at number 4 in my current Books Of The Year.  I rarely go so overboard for a crime novel but I so loved its quirkiness, its characterisation and its misdirections which had me making the wrong assumptions all over the place within a work which felt both fresh and classic.  At the time I did wonder if the author would be able to achieve this again with a second novel which had a similar unusual narrative style.  “The Twyford Code” featured potential secret messages from an Enid Blytonesque writer which gave it great heart and although I felt it lacked a little bit in readability compared to the previous work, the cleverness of misdirections led to a highly satisfactory reading experience and a four star rating.  But would she pull it off a third time?  I really hoped so.

“The Mysterious Case Of The Alperton Angels” consists of research material for a true crime novel which is located in a safe.  The author Amanda Bailey was commissioned to write a new slant on a case of eighteen years previous of a cult ritual suicide/murder which almost led to a baby being sacrificed.  At the same time her one-time colleague and rival Oliver Menzies is commissioned to explore the same case for another publishing company.  Here we get their e-mails, research, found materials including associated fiction and transcripts of interviews around the case.  This is darker territory than the previous novels and I do like dark but I became less convinced as the book progressed that the theme suited this format as well as in the previous books.

The first half I was loving but then it felt like it was getting bogged down with too much material and I could feel my enthusiasm waning and the author’s extrication from this did not feel as impressive as it was in “The Twyford Code”.  I wasn’t surprised to read that one of the acknowledged inspirations was Michelle McNamara’s “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” a true account of how an American true crime writer became obsessed with her work and there were references to other UK crimes and real life figures which I actually felt a little unsettling on this occasion.

There is still humour and great relish in the writing but this is undeniably darker and I must admit to missing the effervescent feeling I got from “The Appeal”.

Janice Hallett is a clever crime writer and has been a real find for me and does deserve Richard Osman comparable sales with her cunning quirky take on British crime, but didn’t quite hit home with this book in the way I was hoping she would.  I’d be interested to see if she deviates from her format with her next book, I must admit to being a little nervous here about diminishing returns.

The Mysterious Case Of The Alperton Angels was published by Viper Books on 19th January 2023.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Devil’s Way – Robert Bryndza (Raven Street Publishing 2023)

This is the first of the titles I highlighted in my “Looking Forward” post. Over three novels Robert Bryndza has established a very impressive crime series featuring Private Detective Kate Marshall and her assistant Tristan. Kate has moved on from her horrific back-story which featured in the first book “Nine Elms” and has settled to sleuthing in Devon whilst running a campsite she inherited in order to stay financially solvent.

After three books all of which felt quite different in tone to one another and which certainly displayed the author’s skills at crime writing he can’t be blamed for taking his foot off the gas a little with this 4th in the series and producing a solid, satisfactory work which is not as quite an exceptional read as the first three but would definitely be a fan-pleaser.

As in “Darkness Falls” the case here involves a long-time missing person.  Here it is a three year old boy who has been missing ten years by the time Kate and Tristan get the case from a grandmother desperate for closure.  The plot is not as rich nor as intense as in the other novels and the twists did not surprise me as much, in fact, unusually for me, I had things sorted fairly early on.  What still works well, and why this book was no way a disappointment to me is the relationship between Kate and Tristan.  Here Kate shows vulnerability with a near-fatal accident early on which switches the dynamic slightly between the two.  Aside from the case I just enjoy these lead characters and I’m sure there’s a lot more mileage in their detective work.

Devil’s Way was published on 12th January 2023 by Raven Street Publishing.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The New Life- Tom Crewe (Chatto & Windus 2023)

Here’s a book which was my last read of 2022 and which I loved so much that it just had to be in my Books Of The Year Top 10 even though it is not published until January 2023…

This extraordinary debut opens with a sex scene in a public place which instantly brought back the memory for me of watching the 1986 French film “Betty Blue” (although it’s known as a different title in France) at the cinema which also begins with a steamy sexual encounter going on.  It brought back the same sense of unease which filled the cinema as without any preamble and little context the description of the act become more shocking, more distancing and challenges the reader/viewer who begins to feel they are a voyeur.  It’s a device which obviously isn’t used that often (which was why a film I saw decades ago came to mind) and I can see why (surely even porn films have some build up to the act).

It materialises that, in this instance, this encounter is actually a dream experienced by John Addington, in the last years of the nineteenth century.  Addington, a middle-aged married man is obsessed by his sexuality.  His wife knows of homosexual encounters in his past and he struggles to channel these feelings into watching naked men swimming in the Serpentine until a meeting in Hyde Park causes him to confront his desires.

Alongside this narrative strand we meet Henry Ellis on his wedding day.  He is an advocate for change in Victorian society, both he and his wife-to-be believe in a New Life with greater freedoms.

I’m a sucker for Victorian-set novels especially when they highlight the double standard of the era and they trace along the darker sides which this novel certainly does.  The byline for the book on Amazon proclaims it – “A daring  new novel about desire and the search for freedom in Victorian England” and that pretty much fits the bill.

The benchmark I seem to always use for such novels is Michel Faber’s sublime “The Crimson Petal And The White”.  Does it match this book by conveying the feel of the time?  Does this feel authentic?  Is the author able to bring the characters and events to life?  In this case, this book is certainly comparable in terms of quality and also up there with other classics in this field -such as John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and Michael Cox’s “The Meaning Of Night”.  Also, like Faber’s work the subject matter and its handling means that it becomes a difficult book to recommend to all.  Looking back at my review of “The Crimson Petal..” I said “Reading groups will be divided because of the graphic elements.  The reader will know within the first pages whether they feel they will be able to accompany Sugar on her momentous journey.”  Substitute the character of Sugar for John Addington and it still feels apt.  This book is not as explicit but there is something about sex in Victorian settings which still shocks.

I didn’t know this until after reading the novel but it is very loosely based on John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis who collaborated on a book called “Sexual Inversion” as do the main characters here.  Written just as the Oscar Wilde scandal is kicking off there will be serious repercussions for our Addington and Ellis.

I loved the characterisation.  Addington tries the patience despite being a soul in  torment.  Ellis’ passivity will frustrate whilst their wives and lovers are richly drawn and add much to the depth of the novel and the issues raised here.  In one or two places the theories of the time clog the flow a little but I think that this is a very important addition to the genre of modern Victorian-set literature.  This is an outstanding literary debut from the former editor of the London Review Of Books.

The New Life will be published by Chatto and Windus on the 12th January.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

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 2023. In 2021 I got round to reading eight out of the ten titles.  Let’s see if I can top that in 2022 and whether they turned out to be the big-hitters of the year . 

The Heretic – Liam McIllvanney (Harper Collins)

Read and rated it four stars in January.  Second in the series which began with the Scottish Crime Book Of The Year “The Quaker“.  Time moved six years on from the previous book giving it a mid 70’s Glasgow setting and this was more quality writing.  At over 500 pages it was quite a lengthy crime novel which allowed richness of detail in its depiction of two warring gangs, one Protestant, one Catholic. Good characterisation of a Serious Crime Squad, all of whom are outsiders which brought interesting dynamics into play.

Devotion – Hannah Kent (Picador)

Another four star read for me in January which was certainly on a par with her first two novels.  I thought this very much a book of three parts with distinct tonal shifts between them.  This turns into a nineteenth century love story which I described as “touching, often heart-breaking and effectively conveyed throughout.”

Love Marriage – Monica Ali (Virago)

I read this in February and this is a book which made it onto a number of “Best Of” round-ups.  I rated it four stars. Her 5th novel, I thought characterisation was especially strong within the supporting cast with a delicious lightness of touch.  I don’t think many readers would place this over Monica Ali’s 2004 “Brick Lane” but it provided a highly satisfactory reading experience. 

Flicker In The Dark – Stacy Willingham (Harper Collins)

Debut thriller which livened up January for me when I read and rated it four stars.  I said of it “It reads well, the Louisiana setting effectively makes its presence known and I am not surprised that options for a TV adaptation have reputedly been picked up.”  It created enough impression on me to have made her next book one of my highlights for the coming year. 

A Good Day To Die – Amen Alonge (Quercus Books)

A big-buzz debut which I read in February and ranked three stars which I found a little underwhelming.  I think that might have been because the publishers were keen to compare this to the superbly written and crafted US TV series “The Wire”.  The odd cartoonish violent scene jarred and I wasn’t convinced by the first person/third person narrative switches.  It did feel fresh and vibrant but perhaps did not live up to the expectations I had for it when I highlighted it as a title I wanted to read last year

Mother’s Boy – Patrick Gale (Tinder Press)

Haven’t read this yet, but I do have a copy sitting waiting on my Kindle.  I’m not sure it made the impression so far some of his titles have on the book-publishing world, but I would imagine that the paperback which is published in February will be a strong seller.

Mouth To Mouth- Antoine Wilson (Atlantic Books)

An American debut with a lot of pre-publication fanfare which did get me seeking it out in February but once again I think maybe I was taken in by the hype.  I thought it had a brave narrative style, as it is a recounting of a tale told second hand.  I said of it “I can see why some readers would really like this book and I can see also why it might leave some unconvinced.  Unusually for me, I’m somewhat stuck in the middle.” That will explain the three star rating then. 

Memphis – Tara M Stringfellow (John Murray)

A debut I read in March and a four star read.  I said of the author; “There’s a voluptuousness to her words, a richness in description, an over-ripeness which beautifully conveys Memphis, Tennessee.”  Tara M Stringfellow certainly left me wanting more with this strong contemporary saga.

Young Mungo – Douglas Stuart (Picador)

I was itching to read this book and when I finished it in April I was so taken aback that I loved it even more than the Booker Prize winning debut which was my 2021 Book Of The Year and by the end of 2022 I still hadn’t read anything to top it and so Douglas Stuart was the author of my favourite book for two years running.  Don’t know why it wasn’t Booker shortlisted but The Guardian, Telegraph, Time Magazine showed much taste in having it on their end of year highlights list.  Outstanding. 

Theatre Of Marvels – Lianne Dillsworth (Penguin)

This proved to be another four star debut and one which could also generate some very healthy sales when the paperback arrives in March.  Set in 1840s London with Crillick’s Variety Theatre as a central location.  It felt very commercial, an ideal reading group choice which would generate much discussion about the issues involved and appreciation for the author’s story-telling skills. 

That’s 9 out of 10 of this read which is my best score ever.  Here are ten more titles which have attracted my attention pre-publication which I hope to be getting around to in 2023.  I wonder, as last year, whether my ultimate Book Of The Year is lurking amongst these books.  

Devil’s Way- Robert Bryndza (Raven Street Publishing) (Due out on 12th January)

Book number 4 in what has so far been a very strong crime series featuring Devon based Private Detective Kate Marshall.  There has been a different feel to each book from the really quite harrowing series opener “Nine Elms” to the much gentler whodunnit feel of “Darkness Falls”.  Who knows what direction Robert Bryndza will take with this but I am expecting high quality writing and further developments in the working relationship between his very effective lead characters – Kate and her younger gay male partner Tristan.

The Mysterious Case Of The Alperton Angels – Janice Hallett (Viper Books) (due out on 19th January)

Third book for the author who made #4 in my current Books Of The Year list with her so impressive debut.  Second novel not quite as good but did not disappoint so I’m fascinated to see where she goes with this.  The Sunday Times described her as “The Queen Of Tricksy Crime” which seems appropriate for her cleverly structured misdirecting fiction.  We’ve had e-mails and phone communications in the debut, audio files in “The Twyford Code”.  Here it seems to be research for a true crime work found in a safe which forms the basis for the plot.

My Father’s House – Joseph O’Connor (Vintage Books) (due out on 26th January)

The one Joseph O’Connor novel I have read 2019’s “Shadowplay” ended up at number 4 in that year’s Books Of The Year list.  This is a historical thriller based on a true story and set in Nazi occupied Rome of 1943.  Last time around I praised the quality of the writing.  I said “O’Connor is good with multi-sensory lists which build such evocative pictures of the time.”  I will be looking forward to more of this.

All The Dangerous Things – Stacy Willingham (Harper Collins)  (due out on 2nd February)

I rated Stacy Willingham’s debut four stars and this is the second year in a row she has appeared in my anticipated list.  The cover has me interested with its “What if the past is best left unburied” teaser.  It’s been heralded a one-sitting read, but I actually can’t remember when I last did that.  I will prefer to take my time to let what Karin Slaughter calls its “palpable tension” to really get its grip.    

Hungry Ghosts- Kevin Jared Hosein (Bloomsbury Publishing) (due out on 16th February)

A debut with a big pre-publication buzz.  The BBC news website described is as “One of the most talked about forthcoming books in literary circles.”  Well, add me to that circle as I’m telling you about it here.  Bernardine Evaristo has described it as “astonishing” and the late Hilary Mantel found it “deeply impressive” so I would imagine it has great depth.  It is a saga of two families in 1940s Trinidad which promises violence, religion, family and class.

Fire Rush – Jacqueline Crooks (Vintage Books) (due out on 2nd March)

This is another debut novel from a young author, who, her publishers say, escaped involvement with a gang underworld through writing and music.  Her short stories have received critical acclaim and here we have something which is being heralded as “about dub reggae, love, loss and freedom.  Fire Rush is an electrifying state-of-the-nation novel and an unforgettable portrait of Black Womanhood.”

The Sun Walks Down -Fiona McFarlane (Sceptre) (Due out on 9th March)

Here’s an epic tale, this time, according to the publishers,  featuring “unsettlement, history, myth, love and art.”.  Set in the late nineteenth century Australian outback and featuring a child who goes missing. Anne Patchett has already described it as “marvellous”.  I haven’t read this Australian author’s previous work which includes an award-winning novel and short-story collection.  This seems a good place to start.

Death Under A Little Sky – Stig Abell (Harper Collins) (due out on 13th April)

Stig Abell has been editor of The Times Literary Supplement and managing editor of The Sun.  He currently co- hosts the breakfast show on Times Radio.  He has been a member of the Press Complaints Commission and has already written two fascinating sounding non-fiction works one of which examines “How Britain Really Works” and one a study on reading “Things I Learned On The 6.28”.  What has been missing from his CV so far is fiction, and here he is with a debut crime novel – a British countryside set whodunnit. Expect high quality literary writing.

Arthur And Teddy Are Coming Out – Ryan Love (HQ Books)  (due out on 13th April)

The publishers are calling this the feel-good read of 2023 and by April we might all be needing some light relief.  This is the tale of a 79 year old grandfather and his grandson who are simultaneously coming to terms with their sexuality.  The cover claims “It’s never too late to be you”. This is another debut which is promising much from a Northern Ireland born writer who has worked in public relations in the music industry, is a former Showbiz editor for Digital Spy and an advocate for mental health.

The Making Of Another Motion Picture Masterpiece – Tom Hanks (Penguin Random House) (due out on 9th May)

Yes, it’s that Tom Hanks and this is his first full-length novel and I’m not normally a sucker for Hollywood A-lister celebrity authors but this certainly sounds ambitious as it spans 80 years of American history and is about the production of a superhero movie. I’m getting John Irving/Michael Chabon vibes.  This will get a lot of publicity and could very well be one of the big titles of the year.

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2022 – Part One (10-6)

I read 61 books this year which is a bit down on the last couple of years and short of my Good Reads goal of 70.  I retired from paid employment in 2022 and I thought that would mean I would have more time for reading – that obviously hasn’t proved to be the case.  Out of these 61 books, 15 got five star ratings which I think is the highest figure for top ratings I’ve ever given, which made picking the Top 10 from these very worthy books very difficult.  As always, if I’ve read it this year it is included, even if it was published in a previous year, or in the case of one of the titles below, due to be published in 2023.  There are 3 books on the list which were published in 2022, which seems to be the typical figure in these Top 10s. 

So, 61 books, 15 five star ratings, 31 four star reads and also 15 three stars.  59 of these have already been reviewed on the site and they can be found by scrolling through or using one of the two indexes – two titles, including one of the top 10 have not yet had their full reviews appear as I am holding out to nearer to the publication date in January 2023.  I spent quite a considerable time thinking about the books I’d  read this year in forming my Top 10 and once I had assigned positions I felt a little uneasy.  Last year I had a diverse list with a 50-50 gender split, 40% black authors and 30% identifying as LGBT+.  Although the latter figure stays the same there is a drop in both female and black writers (and no black female writers).  In fact, I thought the gender imbalance was unprecedented but this list matches my 2014 choices with which I launched reviewsrevues.com.  I’m not sure whether this is just a blip this year, I must admit some of the big female authored titles did not appeal to me, for example Bonnie Garmus’ “Lessons In Chemistry” was a title I’d had recommended to me and I know it’s one which will feature in many end of year lists but I couldn’t get beyond the very female orientated cover (nor the title actually).  I like to read a balance of books, fiction, non-fiction, newly published and backlisted titles written by a diverse range of authors and this will continue in 2023.  Three of the Top 10 are non-fiction and there are two debut novels and a chunky 50% of the authors have previously featured in my end of year best of lists, which may illustrate that in a year when I have had a lot of upheaval, moving house, relocating to a new area and leaving work I have been more likely to choose authors who have impressed me in the past. 

Here is the first part of the list 10-6.  Don’t be too shocked by the lack of female authors, there is more of a balance in the Top 5.  If you would like to read the full review (and I hope you do as these are the books I want to clamber onto rooftops and shout about) just click on the title.

10. The Queen Of Dirt Island – Donal Ryan (Doubleday 2022)

(Read in July, reviewed in August)

This is Irish author Donal Ryan’s second appearance in my Top 10.  His debut “The Spinning Heart” was my runner-up in 2013.  He has a real skill with characterisation.  In both the books of his which have blown me away he brings a whole community to life.  He is able to establish rich characters in a short space of time and he certainly does this here with his tale of four generations of a family from rural Tipperary.  It is set in the same location and with some of the same characters as “Strange Flowers” which won the Novel Of The Year Awards at the Irish Book Awards.  This was also shortlisted for the same award in 2022 but lost to “Trespasses” by Louise Kennedy.  I think it is a superior companion piece to “Strange Flowers” (and also works fine as a stand-alone).

9. My Revolutions – Hari Kunzru (Penguin 2007)

(Read and reviewed in December)

This is also British writer’s Hari Kunzru’s second appearance in my end of year Top 10, with his 2004 novel “Transmission” making it to number 3 in 2010.  This was perhaps my biggest reading surprise as I wouldn’t have thought this tale of radicalism in late 60’s/ early 70’s England would have appealed.  I was totally captivated by the story-telling and thought it was so rich a novel.  It skipped around in time, which I know some readers do not like but I think it worked really well here and each time-frame was as interesting as the others.  I described it as a book which explores “fighting for what you believe in and how easily idealism can become tainted so that the brave new world once thought possible goes increasingly out of reach.” In terms of scope I felt echoes of Ian McEwan’s 2022 publication “Lessons” but I think this is the stronger novel.

8. Let’s Do It – Jasper Rees (Trapeze 2020)

(Read and reviewed in April)

The authorised biography of Victoria Wood- this is a big book which I knew I was going to like, enough to get me forking out for a hardback edition.  Rees gets the split between the private and public person across so well and this was a big thing for Victoria, who privately was far removed from the bubbly confidence of perhaps the greatest British comedian of all time.  Rees celebrates her as a pioneer, which she undoubtedly was.  I described this as “the definitive biography of Victoria Wood, no one else need bother.

7. Dickens- Peter Ackroyd (Sinclair Stevenson 1990)

(Read and reviewed in March)

And talking of big books, this was my only 1000+ page read of the year, so thank goodness I loved it.  I suspected I was onto a winner as Ackroyd is my third most read author of all time and has made 6 previous appearances on my End of Year list (although not since 2010).  In fact, I had read this before in an edited edition but this full account of the life of Dickens is the real deal and made a greater impression.  It is just so thorough and really got me wanting to revisit the work of Dickens (as well as more Ackroyd).  It’s not actually the author’s best book- I’ll still give that to “London: The Biography” which was my book of the year in 2002 but it is extremely impressive and in the lengthy time it will take you to read this book (five weeks for me) you will be in the hands of a master biographer.

6. The New Life – Tom Crewe (Chatto & Windus 2023)

(Read in December. To be reviewed)

Advance warning for this outstanding debut which will be published in the UK on 12th January.  The author is a former editor of the London Review Of Books and he puts his literary awareness into play with this Victorian set novel which is described as “a daring new novel about desire and the search for freedom in Victorian England.”  My full review of this will follow in the New Year.  Expect comparisons to  “The Crimson Petal & The White” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”- two of my all-time favourites.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for my next post – The Top 5