Books of the past, present and future. My top reads of 2020 (and early 2021).

As we gladly say goodbye to 2020, the good news is that we should be able to meet up in more normal circumstances at some point in 2021. My reading this year has been a little different as I’ve relied on well-loved authors such as PD James and Josephine Tey and also read widely outside the crime genre. However, I’ve also enjoyed some outstanding crime novels which were published in 2020 and have discovered four exceptional reads for 2021.

First up my top five crime reads of 2020 (in alphabetical order).

 

1. The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves: Vera, snow and family secrets. What more could you want from a crime novel?

2.  The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths The welcome return of Ruth Galloway to Norfolk and a genuinely creepy tale.

3. The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel Not a traditional crime novel but a powerful story of a Bernie Madoff style figure and the impact of his crimes on family and victims.

4. The Wayward Girls by Amanda Mason Reminiscent of the Essex poltergeist hauntings, I loved the strong characterisation and atmospheric setting.

5. Sorry for the Dead by Nicola Upson The combination of Josephine Tey and Charleston makes for a rich narrative and there’s an intriguing historic murder to solve.

And what are the books you really want to read for 2021?

First up is the fabulous Body of Stars by Laura Maylene Walter. Set in a world where women’s skin is mapped with markings which predict their future, Celeste reaches the age where her markings change from temporary to permanent. She finds her changing body an object of fascination and she, along with other changelings, becomes an abduction target. The story is both compelling and menacing and bursts with originality.

Body of Stars is out on the 18th March

If you love alternative realities, another book I’ve read which pulled me into its worlds was The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley. Joe Tournier receives a postcard with an etching of a lighthouse on the front. It has been in the sorting office for 91 years but Joe discovers the lighthouse has only recently been built. Joe is a British slave in the French Empire. It’s a world where the French won the Napoleonic Wars. Or is it? Joe can remember a world where English is spoken and in his quest to discover if his memory losses are down to epilepsy or a more shadowy truth, he travels to Scotland to visit the lighthouse in the postcard. Brilliantly inventive with a plot designed to enthral, I didn’t want to leave the world Pulley created.

The Kingdoms is out on 27th May

The Last House on Needless Street is an atmospheric, creepy thriller reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Lulu disappeared aged six, the supposed victim of a predator. Dee, her sister, is haunted by the disappearance and rents a house near one of the suspects at the time. Ted lives with his daughter Lauren and cat, Olivia.  A loner who takes trips only to visit a dubious therapist,  is Ted responsible for Lulu’s disappearance? Unusual, sad and ultimately redemptive, it’s a book to surprise and delight.

The Last House on Needless Street is out on 18th March.

Finally, The Drowned City is the first in a series by K J Maitland. Set in the year following the Gunpowder Plot, a conspirator, Daniel Pursglove, is set free in exchange for entering Bristol and spying on the Catholic conspirators there. The city is recovering from a drenching by a River Severn wave which killed thousands. In the middle of mayhem, Daniel finds himself hunting for a killer. Beautifully written with a dark heart, Maitland knows how to pull you deep into the early Jacobean period.

The Drowned City is out on the 1st April.

So, some great books to look forward to. What were your outstanding reads for 2020?

 

Latest Reads: Golden Age, Nordic Noir and More…

As we begin to emerge from covid-19 lockdown, I’m trying to take stock of the assorted books I’ve read over the last month or so. Some of you may have seen on Twitter that I was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer over the last few months. Terrible timing but I’ve now, thankfully, finished treatment. My reading, we can safely say, has been spontaneous and comforting (even when it’s quite gory!)

First up is a non-fiction book I loved. One of the great things about interacting with readers on my Facebook author page has been some of the book recommendations I’ve received (good for my reading, bad for my bank balance). The Knife Man by Wendy Moore subtitled of “Blood, Body-Snatching and Birth of Modern Surgery” was impossible to resist. It charts the career of John Hunter who rose from humble Scottish origins to a residence in Leicester Square treating the great and good of Georgian London. Eschewing the leaching and blood letting of his peers, he used disection and the study of anatomy to advance medical practices such as removing cancerous tumours and innovative bypass procedures to avoid amputations.

While his experiments sometimes make for uncomfortable reading (especially when you’ve just had surgery yourself), many of his ideas became the cornerstone for modern medicine and Hunter is a wonderful maverick who deserves to be wider known. We see him from the fresh faced new arrival procuring bodies by dubious means for his physician brother’s lectures to an elderly man suffering from angina who refused to let his illness slow him down. I was entranced by the book and Moore’s writing.

I’ve been reading a fair amount of golden age detective fiction including books by Dorothy Sayers, Carol Carnac and Josephine Tey. Detective fiction set between the First and Second World Wars isn’t always just about the mystery. Some show interesting character development and a take on social issues of the time. Two contemporary writers who I love are Nicola Upson and Martin Edwards who’ve taken on golden age tropes and given then a modern twist.

Sorry for the Dead is the latest instalment in Nicola Upson’s excellent series featuring Josephine Tey as its protagonist. Jospehine revisits the summer of 1915 when, as a newly qualified teacher, she supervised students at a horticultural college set in the grounds of Charleston, later famous as the home of Vanessa Bell. When a student dies, the whole enterprise comes under scrutiny and prejudices move to the fore. In 1938, as a journalist attempts to resurrect the scandal. Reflecting on the incident invokes a mood of reassessment in Tey which is superbly handled by Upson. This series is marked by excellent writing and clever plotting and each book gets better and better.

Mortmain Hall is the latest book in Martin Edwards series of historical thrillers set in the 1930s. Rachel Savernake investigates a series of seemingly unconnected deaths not all of which have been concluded as murder. As Rachel travels around the country, she is occasionally perused and often aided by journalist Jacob Flint. The book is full of golden age references for aficionados to enjoy – a hanging judge, a stocking salesman – and there’s an air of fun about the book along with meticulous research and a killer protagonist.

Finally, two Nordic Noir novels I enjoyed. Fatal Isles is set in Doggerland, an island off Denmark, where Detective Inspector Karen Eiken Hornby wakes up after an oyster festival next to her boss. When his ex wife is found murdered that same day, Hornby takes charge of the investigation but must negotiate her own relationship with the chief suspect. I loved the Doggerland setting and the sense of an insular community holding on to its secrets. Not out until February 2021, this a crime novel to watch out for.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s books are particular favourites of mine. In her latest book, Gallow’s Rock, a man is found hanging from a rock once used as a place of execution. When the police break into the man’s appartment they discover a four year old boy with a complicated story about how he came to be in the building. The race is on to discover the fate of the child’s mother and the complex and violent relationship at the heart of the mystery, A satisfyingly twisty tale.

So that’s a selection of recent books I’ve read. I’ve also been immersing myself in the gothic, more of which in my next post….