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.
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.
I highlighted this debut in my “Looking Back Looking Forward post”, a Louisiana set thriller described by top crime writer Jeffery Deaver as “an unstoppable journey through the psychology of evil, and of courage (in many senses), all told in a pitch-perfect literary style.”
I don’t read many psychological thrillers nowadays, the market seems flooded with them and I find them a little samey but here we have a strong example.
Psychologist Chloe Davis is our damaged first-person narrator. Keeping herself well-dosed with prescription medication she is facing the twentieth anniversary of a case she helped to crack as a 12 year old when, horrifically, her father was imprisoned for the abduction and suspected murder of 6 teenage girls. All this happened in Breaux Bridge, “the Crawfish capital of the world”, a small-town environment Chloe had to escape from after the disintegration of her family.
Now in Baton Rouge and on the verge of marriage her world crumbles again when it looks like a copycat killer is murdering in her local area.
Chloe is implicated, needs to clear her name and takes too long to involve the police (which is so often the case in this sort of book). Three quarters of the way through the tension is ramped up by unforeseen (by me) twists which continues to impress to its conclusion. It was a resolution I saw coming early on, then didn’t, then forgot all about as Willingham skilfully misdirects with careful plotting. 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.
Flicker In The Dark is published on 3rd February 2022 by Harper Collins in the UK. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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!