It’s the festivals’ festive choices: Top 5 Books of the Year

Book festivals are the literary heroes of 2021 who have brought authors to readers in trying circumstances. Organisers have had to deal with ensuring the safety of attendees, uncertain audience numbers, short notice changes to line-ups, and the mechanics of new technology. However, the good news is that festivals have taken place to the delight of everyone.

To celebrate this achievement, I’ve asked eleven festival organisers and event chairs to tell me their top five books of the year. People programming book festivals often read as much as reviewers but we rarely hear about the books they loved. So, what were their stand out reads of 2021?

Vicky Dawson is the Book Festival Director of Buxton International Festival (@BuxtonFestival). In 2021, she programmed the book events for the main July festival and the autumn Big BIF Weekend. The festival will returning July 2022. Her top reads were:

1. Tristram Hunt – The Radical Potter
Much wider than a biography of Josiah Wedgwood. Takes in the gamut of the Midlands Enlightenment and the state of the nation in Wedgwood’s time. Also Tristram is so very, very good on the festival stage.

2. David Hockney & Martin Gayford- Spring Cannot Be Cancelled
Turned me from a Hockney denier to Hockney aficionado. A beautiful book for our times and  charming conversation between two art lovers. 

3. Penelope Lively – Metamorphosis
Lively has been my lockdown saviour and this collection of her own stories sent me back to rereading all my favourite of her novels.

4. John M. Marzluff – In the Company of Crows and Ravens
Not a new book but I add this in as the best virtual book event I’ve seen this year courtesy of The Last Tuesday Society. John spoke from his log cabin in Yellowstone Park for an hour and a half to an international audience. 

5. Jeff W. Bens – The Mighty Oak
I read about this on Lit Hub. I’m not sure why a book on a violent aging ice hockey player addicted to pain killers appealed, but it turned out to be compelling, emotional and beautifully written.

Gill Hart is the event organiser for the independent bookshop Lindum Books (@LindumBooks). In 2021, they held author interviews both online and in person. The following list is her top 5 Lindum Books events reads.

1. Katherine May – Wintering (virtual event).
We did this as both a virtual event and a reading group book and it helped us all get through a tough winter in its reflections on both the natural world and the effects of winter on mental health.

2. Janice Hadlow – The Other Bennett Sister (virtual event).
This is a brilliant rewrite of the Pride and Prejudice story from Mary’s point of view; as well as being a great read, it left me feeling so very guilty at my lifelong complicity in the bullying of the unlikable sister – I finished firmly in team Mary.

3. Vaseem Khan – Midnight at Malabar House (virtual event).
It’s always a pleasure to discover – and introduce our customers to – a new crime series and this is the start of a really excellent one, set in 1950s India shortly after partition and introducing India’s first female police detective. 

4. Lucy Adlington – The Dressmakers of Auschwitz (real life event).
A compelling and important story told from a completely new – and crucially from a female – perspective; what made this so special was the focus on celebrating the lives and (in some cases) survivals of these amazing women, rather than just on their dreadful circumstances.

5. Karen Maitland – The Drowned City (real life event).
In a change from her usual historical (medieval) period, this is the first of a series set against a background of the witch hunts of James I and featuring the most engaging Daniel Pursglove; as in all Karen’s books the setting is so well drawn you can almost smell the place!

Alis Hawkins (@Alis_Hawkins) is a Welsh author and founder member of Gŵyl CRIME CYMRU Festival (@CrimeCymru) which held its digital event in 2021. The festival will return in Aberystwyth on May Bank Holiday 2022. Here she gives her top five crime reads.

1. Imran Mahmood – I Know What I Saw
A worthy successor to You Don’t Know Me marks Imran Mahmood as a star who’s not just rising but already at the top of his game.

2. Chris Lloyd – The Unwanted Dead
I was lucky enough to read a proof copy of this and predicted that it would be a winner well before it won the Historical Writers’ Association gold crown – the brilliant first book in Lloyd’s Eddie Giral series.

3. Beverley Jones – The Beach House
Bev Jones’s recent books, set in America, have begun to garner the success she was denied when she set her books in Wales and this one is an absolute cracker.

4. Laura Shepherd-Robinson – Daughters of Night
Meticulously researched, beautifully plotted, wonderfully realised and perfectly, absolutely satisfying – this is a tour de force of historical writing in any genre.

5. Mari Hannah – Without a Trace
I’ve been meaning to read Mari Hannah’s Kate Daniels books for a while and interviewing her for Gŵyl CRIME CYMRU Festival provided the perfect opportunity: having read this pitch-perfect novel I’ll be reading them all now!

Sian Hoyle (@SianHoyle) is the Director of Derby Book Festival (@DerbyBookFest) Its June festival was one of the first in-person events of the year which also featured the live streaming of author interviews. It held an autumn edition in November and will be back in June 2022.

1. Maggie Shipstead – Great Circle
Epic in every way – great storytelling and a lovely twist at the end.  Her travel writing skills are evident in this global novel.  Well deserved Booker shortlistee.

2. Amor Towles – Rules of Civility
Having loved A Gentleman in Moscow I finally read his first.  Wonderful depiction of New York society between the wars with memorable characters.  The intro really pulls you into what happened to the man in the photograph.  

3. Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half
Thought provoking exploration of our divided society, the implications of our decisions and the lies we tell.  

4. Rumaan Alam – Leave the World Behind
Unnerving novel about what the end of the world might be like.  Written before the pandemic, it really resonates.

5. Taylor Jenkins Reid – Daisy Jones and the Six
Written as an interview with the band members, it is based on Fleetwood Mac’s turbulent relationships.  Not my usual choice and can’t now remember why I read it other, than I kept on seeing mentions.  Unputdownable for me.  

Matt Johnson (@Matt_Johnson_UK) is a founder member of Gŵyl CRIME CYMRU Festival which held a digital event in 2021. The festival will return in Aberystwyth on May Bank Holiday 2022.

1. Harper Lee – To kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (narrated by Sissy Spacek).
It took me a long time to get around to this and it was worth the wait. Everything about it was just excellent.

2. Patrick Radden Keefe – Say Nothing
Brilliantly written. The truth behind one of the most notorious crimes of the ‘troubles’.

3. Seamus Milne – The Enemy Within
If you thought you knew what our Government is up to, think again. A gripping read.

4. Heather Martin – The Reacher Guy
Read before I interviewed Lee in April. Absolutely fascinating. Well researched and very well written.

5. James O’Connell – 3 Days in June
The Falklands, 3 Para and the battle for Mt Longdon. In the words of those who were there. A humbling and absorbing read.

Caroline Maston (@carolinemaston) is the founder of the UK Crime Book Club (@ukcrimebookclub). Their festivals take place on Facebook and on YouTube. They’re aiming for 3/4 next year including the new Winterfest that celebrates all things cold, cosy and seasonal.

1. T G Campbell – The Case of the Curious Client (Bow Street Society)
A team of unlikely crime sleuths, solve cases in the victorian era, historical, witty and smart everything I want in a book.

2. S E Moorhead – Witness X
Dystopic crime set in a near future when memories can be viewed and used to solve crimes, there needs to be more crime novels like this.

3. William Hussey – Hideous Beauty
YA crime story, with a young protagonist reeling from the loss of their first partner trying to find answers to what has happened, made me cry.

4. Eiko Kadano – Kiki’s Delivery Service
Young witch goes off to find her way as an adult, starts a delivery service, this is a warm hug of a novel

5. Laurence Anholt – Festival of Death
An unusual crime solving duo try to solve a murder that has happened on the pyramid stage at the Glastonbury Festival in front of a lot of witnesses, a truly excellent read. 

Margaret Murphy (@murphy_dyer) is a crime writer and panel moderator who reviews fiction and non-fiction – new and old – at blog, Shelf Indulgence. She is co-founder of Perfect Crime UK (@PerfectCrimeUK), which launched its first in-person crime day in Liverpool in November 2021. Her latest novel is Don’t Scream. Here are her top reads of 2021.

1. Lisa Gardner – Alone
Is Catherine Gagnon a femme fatale or a wronged woman? Is she harming her child or protecting him? And can she stay one step ahead of the monster, recently released from prison, who has haunted her dreams since her harrowing abduction as a child? Alone is a thrilling and genuinely exciting read, and I tore through it, eager for each new revelation. 

2. Allan H Ropper and Brian Burrell – Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole
This book is truly extraordinary. Allan Ropper is a professor at Harvard Medical School, and is credited with founding the field of neurological intensive care, so he knows a thing or two about the brain. Taking the form of a series of case studies, the book provides fascinating insights into a neurologist’s work and the often bewildering behaviours caused by the malfunctioning brain. 

3. Patricia Highsmith – Carol
Highsmith wrote Carol (originally The Price of Salt) under a pseudonym, and didn’t acknowledge authorship until 1990. Published in the 1950s, when lesbian relationships were considered morally corrupt, Carol captures perfectly the oppressive sense of dread and the persecution of gay women at that time. Yet it also offers hope – a rare and beautiful thing in Highsmith’s work.

4. Naomi Wood – The Hiding Game
Naomi Wood begins her story during Germany’s hyperinflation years in the 1920s. There are hints of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History in the opening chapters, but the book bears a stronger affinity to Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune – the first in her Balkan Trilogy. A world in turmoil, a growing sense of threat, and people living rich and fulfilled lives while madness rages all around.

5. Michael Connelly – The Law of Innocence
In this almost unbearably tense narrative, Lincoln Lawyer Micky Haller is pitted against an ambitious DA hell-bent on finding him guilty of a murder he did not commit. The clever legal challenges and counter-challenges of the trial, coupled with the twists and turns of Haller’s parallel murder investigation are so engrossing that I read far into the night, desperate to see him vindicated.

Nick Quantrill (@NickQuantrill) is the Hull based author of the Joe Geraghty series of crime novels. Nick is also the co-founder of the Hull Noir (@HullNoir) crime writing festival which ran as an online event in 2021.

1. Dominic Nolan – Vine Street
A sweeping historical noir set in the 1930s and inspired by true events. It’s Peaky Blinders for grown-ups.

2. DL Marshall – Anthrax Island
A spy novel set on an inhabitable island, but one with murders? I’m in.

3. Eva Dolan – One Half Truth
No one captures societal issues so consistently well as Eva in her Peterborough series. Another winner.

4. Ray Celestin – Sunset Swing
To 1960s Los Angeles and the conclusion of this outstanding quartet of noir novels, all done with a master’s touch.

5. David F Ross -There’s Only One Danny Garvey
Working-class, small town life is vividly told via the medium of faded football glory. All the heart of prime Roddy Doyle.

Lee Randall (@randallwrites) is currently working with Borderlines Carlisle (@borderlinesfest) to programme their 2022 festival, and with Wigtown Book Festival on their 2022 Big Bang Weekend. She chairs numerous events throughout the year, digitally and in person. In 2021, she worked with Edinburgh International Book Festival, Write Highland Hoolie, Wigtown Book Festival, Borderlines Carlisle, Ballie Gifford Borders Book Festival, Bloody Scotland, Granite Noir, Scottish Books Long Weekend, and for FANE productions. 

Each year I read a combination of old books, brand new books, and proofs of books not yet published. Among my favourite “read-in-the-line-of-duty” titles from 2021 were these, offered in no particular order. I’ve decided to focus on fiction, and am surprised to notice that four are debuts. (Ask again tomorrow and I am sure to pick a different five books!)

1. Cherie Jones – How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House
This is a trip to paradise — the Bahamas — that’s anything but heavenly, evoked so vividly that you’ll taste the tang of the ocean on your tongue long after reaching the end. A warm, engaging novel about fully-fleshed-out characters, with all their flaws and virtues. Difficult issues, such as domestic abuse, are handled with deft subtlety. 

2. Jarred McGinnis – The Coward
The story of a young man coping with the aftermath of a car crash that forces him to move back in with his father, a recovering alcoholic he hasn’t spoken to in a decade. The story of a man in a wheelchair that’s not about being in a wheelchair, but about family, masculinity, guilt, addiction and love — drenched in mordant wit and inescapable truths.

3. Elaine Feeney – As You Were.
A laugh-out-loud book about death? A desperately moving, yet never twee tale of mortality? This is both. It’s also a potent story about Ireland and its relationship with women — and about women’s relationship with shame. What a balancing act! I loved it.

4. Andy Charman – Crow Court.
An ambitious, original, polyphonic historical novel set in 19th century Dorset, that airlifts you into the heart of the action, witnessing the repercussions of devastating events on a small community as they play out over decades. And play’s the operative word — one senses an author revelling in the possibilities of language and imagination. Fun and unforgettable. 

5. Pat Barker – The Women of Troy.
My relationship with Pat and her work goes back decades, to book one, Union Street. Her talent remains breathtaking and inspiring. I have a lifelong fascination with Greek mythology, and love her reinterpretation of the Trojan War told from a female perspective.

Tim Rideout (@TimRideout1) is an event chair who interviews authors for literary festivals & bookshops, including the Newark Book Festival (@NewarkBookFest), Lincoln Book Festival and Lindum Books. In his spare time he’s completing a PhD in Gothic fiction. The following are his top five interview related crime/thrillers

1. Ann Cleeves – The Darkest Evening
A brilliant reinterpretation of the country house mystery by one of our best contemporary crime writers writing at the top of their game.  Claustrophobic, unsettling, compelling.

2. Elly Griffiths – The Night Hawkes
The Dr Ruth Galloway series goes from strength to strength.  Griffiths deftly crafts a deeply disturbing atmosphere, using the Norfolk tale of the Black Shuck – a spectral hound of bad omen.

3. David Baldacci – A Gambling Man
The second novel to feature 1940s PI Aloysius Archer in a noirish novel that evokes effortlessly the best of Chandler and MacDonald.

4. T.M. Logan – Trust Me
A daring central conceit and opening scene sets up a cracking thriller that never lets up until the very last page.

5. William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin – The Dark Remains
Rankin’s seamless completion of McIlvanney’s unfinished Laidlaw novel represents the best of both authors.

Nick Triplow (@nicktriplow) is a writer and co-founder of the Hull Noir crime fiction festival along with Hull crime writer, Nick Quantrill, with whom he also co-hosts the Hull Noir Three Book Friday series on YouTube. 

1. Jerome Charyn – Sergeant Salinger 
A brilliantly conceived account of JD Salinger’s experiences in love and war. Beginning in 1942 and a doomed love affair with Oona O’Neil, we follow the young Salinger to England, then as an increasingly disillusioned member of the counterintelligence corps advancing with the Allies across Europe. 

2. Cathi Unsworth – Bad Penny Blues 
Reissued by Strange Attractor Press in February 2021, Bad Penny Blues hits as hard now as it did on first publication. A fictionalised account of the true case of a killer (or killers) who, between June 1959 and February 1965, murdered eight women and left their bodies in or along the Thames in West London. Immersed in the lives of the disenfranchised and socially outcast, Bad Penny Blues is a classic London noir. 

3. Dominic Nolan – Vine Street 
Sharing some of the same streets and themes as Bad Penny Blues, albeit a generation earlier, Vine Street takes us into the seedy un-owned back-alleys of Soho of the 1930s and 40s as Detective Sergeant Leon Geats tracks down a sadistic killer. Raw, superbly detailed, and thoroughly engaging. 

4. Ian McGuire – The Abstainer 
A gripping historical noir set in 1860s Manchester against the backdrop of Fenian rebellion. I interviewed Ian for one of the few in-person events we staged in Hull this year as the adaptation of his novel, The North Water, screened on TV. The Abstainer shares that novel’s rich, dark detail with an unsettling sense that violence is no more than a cobbled street away. 

5. James Lee Burke – The Neon Rain 
One of the pleasures of co-presenting Hull Noir Three Book Friday is discovering (or rediscovering) writers I’ve missed along the road. In May, Rod Reynolds chose The Neon Rain, the first of James Lee Burke’s series featuring New Orleans detective, Dave Robicheaux. I’m a firm believer books find us when we need them, this being a case in point. Thanks Rod. Here’s to 2022!

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