This is a lovely way to reflect on what I’ve enjoyed reading this year, and why. I am hopeless at ranking things, and I’ve liked books for different reasons, so they are in no order.
A Devil Under the Skin by Anya Lipska
This is the third in Anya’s brilliant East London based series, featuring PI Janusz Kiszka and DC Natalie Kershaw. No sign of staleness here, these books just get better and better. I adore two things about Anya’s writing. Her style is unique. It is both clever and funny and this makes it a pleasure to read. For me, though, what marks out her style is that many of her phrases draw on multiple reference sources, and word choices are evocative and ‘on trend’. I loved the plot in this book. Janusz, Natalie and Oskar are caught up in, and have to respond to, events which show the many facets of their characters. The Polish context is handled with affection and honesty and humour. Some of the exchanges between Janusz and Oskar are comedy genius.
Huntress Moon by Alexandra Sokoloff
I often find that screenwriters write evocative prose, and dramatise events in their novels in ways which make you feel as though you are on a film set, not sitting on the couch with a paperback and box of Jaffa cakes. This is definitely the case with Alexandra Sokoloff’s writing. I found Huntress Moon gripping from the first sentence and deeply unsettling. Sokoloff’s language and writing are gorgeous. Descriptions of San Francisco and the other US locations are vivid and rich, and, in places, very unusual. Huntress Moon is the first in what is going to be a quintet of novels, with three already published.
For me, the ‘Huntress’ is the stand-out of the two main characters, but perhaps this is because female characters can be so hard to get right – in terms of gender stereotypes and clichés – and make ‘fresh’. This is a serial killer crime novel with several important differences. I adored the mythology and the way that the moon cycles influence behaviour. There was plenty of Psychology to get my teeth into, drawing on key aspects of Developmental and Forensic Psychology. Wonderful.
I Know Who Did It by Steve Mosby
Steve Mosby has become one of my favourite writers. His creative writing is different from his blog writing (as you would expect) but shimmers with the same intelligence. He explores unusual psychological terrain, and burrows into the rabbit holes of the human condition with empathy and nuance, including how morality adds additional considerations to the complexities of psychological processes. In this book, notions of heaven and hell, God and the Devil, right and wrong, good and bad, and what constitutes sin, are stirred in and create a heady mix. The book starts with a man named David Groves being driven into the woods. The atmosphere shudders with menace and intrigue. I had no idea what to expect. In a few brief chapters you have a woman who has come back from the dead and a man who’s receiving cards for his dead son. What I adored about this book was that I was continually having to check what I thought I knew. Mosby’s writing is a masterclass in the creation of suspense and atmosphere, and in manipulating reader assumptions in devilishly clever ways. In I Know Who Did It there are a number of game-changing plot twists which spin the reader three sixty degrees. Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum
Hausfrau kept me spellbound for several days. It left me motionless on my bed when I finished it, thoughts swirling as I lay there, all sorts of emotions competing. In the book, Anna’s life is hurtling out of control. She is taking risks and not attending fully to areas of her life. It made me think about how much control we have over our lives, how easy it is for a person to change learned behaviours and responses, where responsibility and accountability lie, what unhappiness is … and a whole lot more. There are phrases, images and metaphors in Hausfrau which made me hold my breath. Having studied German at university, and long been interested in language and linguistics, I purred at the way Essbaum played with and explored language, and the relationship between language and thought.
The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul Hardisty
The Abrupt Physics of Dying is absolutely not my usual kind of novel but reading it felt like savouring a long cocktail with bite while necking the occasional shot of tequila. It’s a tense, gritty eco-thriller set in Yemen in 1994. It has a gripping plot based on fictionalised versions of real events which the author experienced over many years. It opens with Claymore Straker (Clay), an oil company engineer, looking down the barrel of a Kalashnikov into the eyes of a ‘kid’ terrorist who has hijacked him. By the end of the first page the reader knows some key information about Clay: something BIG happened thirteen years ago, and he has killed. So many questions arise from this first page. Clever hooks and wonderful writing.
After the Fire by Jane Casey
I knew I was going to love Jane’s writing and I had a feeling it was going to be funny. Getting humour ‘right’ in crime novels isn’t always easy. There are a number of mysteries within After the Fire – and a couple of sub-plots – and each one adds a layer of intrigue to the investigation, and ramps up the tension. The reader is quickly drawn into the murky lives of the residents and visitors at the tower block where the fire occurs, some of whom are more sympathetic than others. What makes this novel is the two main characters, Kerrigan and Derwent, and the various facets of their relationship. Their sparring is very funny and clever, and they clearly care about each other and watch each other’s backs. While Derwent is the senior officer, he and Kerrigan pass the power baton back and forth. I love the way they complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses – and need each other. We see Derwent through Kerrigan’s eyes, and Kerrigan (mainly) through her own. In addition, Jane Casey’s writing is a treat. Her dialogue is sharp, and the character observations are astute and funny.
No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary
When the bodies of two boys are found curled together in a bunker in the garden of a house, twelve feet underground, DI Marnie Rome is determined to bring to justice whoever is responsible for their suffering. As she and DS Noah Jake tease out the strands of the mystery, they realise they are dealing with a crime which is as disturbing as it is morally complex. Sinister discoveries, involving foster children and ruthless property developers, pull Rome further into the maze-like investigation, and yet again she is forced to reflect on the reasons why people commit awful acts and whether it is possible to forgive them when they do. From the reactions and comments of Rome, Jake and another key character we gradually learn what occurred. It is more devastating than you could ever imagine.
Sarah Hilary is extremely good at showing the reader how characters are reacting and feeling. Sometimes she maintains the emotional intensity; others she makes tiny adjustments to the emotional barometer within each scene but without descriptions becoming melodramatic. For me, it is partly the emotional intelligence which threads through Hilary’s writing which marks her out. The other thing is the writing itself. When a writer describe things in ways which make me see the world differently, I’m in awe.
Untouchable by Ava Marsh
Amongst crowded book shelves, a novel with an unusual setting or protagonist stands out. The story at the heart of Untouchable is a universal one: someone makes a terrible mistake which has awful consequences, and finds it hard to come to terms with it all. It takes courage to write a book set in the sex industry as you run the risk of having your book labelled erotica. However, to dismiss this extremely well written Vice Noir novel as that is to miss something fresh. There are a number of types of crime in the book, raising the question of whether crime novels have to include murders. These add to the story layers and epitomise how complex life often is. I really liked Ava’s main character, Grace, and felt hugely sympathetic towards her. The guilt she was experiencing as a result of the mistake she made had pushed her into self-destructive and self-punishing behaviour. Gutsy, principled, flawed and vulnerable, she’s a brilliant female character.
The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto
The Hummingbird is a fascinating and honest examination of what it can be like to be an immigrant in Finland. It delves into the thorny issues of prejudice and stereotypes, and belonging and identity. The protagonist detective, Anna Fekete, is a Hungarian from former Yugoslavia. On the first day of her new job, a female jogger is found dead and a Kurdish girl reported to be in danger.
The author has lived in the Hungarian region of Serbia and has taught immigrants in her role as a special needs teacher, so clearly knows her subject. Chapters are written from Anna’s point of view and that of one of the victims (the Kurdish girl), the combination of which provides useful insight to the forced marriage situation. I loved the way that Kati integrates landscape, weather and nature into the story of this novel, as it contributes to the tone and mood in a way which feels relevant rather than indulgent, and in a way which doesn’t pull the reader out of the story. For me, this is Finnish social realism at its bravest and best.
The Death House by Sarah Pinborough
If there is a book which demonstrates how redundant genre classifications can be, it is The Death House. It has elements of several genres and is set in the future. However, at its most essential it is a story about how a group of children of various ages respond to being taken away from their homes in a van to an institution. This happens because they have something in their blood tests which makes them ‘defective’, and which means that sooner or later they will get sick and die. And this is what makes the book delightful: it shows, via beautifully written prose, how differently each of them responds to the same situation. Toby is an emotional and sensitive boy, also proud and scared and angry. When Clara arrives, the bond they develop, and her response to her prognosis, have a profound effect on him.
I enjoyed the scenes in the dorms with the boys bantering and jockeying for position. Toby’s fellow ‘inmates’ are characterised well, distinct and real. I loved how Clara arrives on the scene and shakes everything up, apparently confident but with her own vulnerabilities. While they all wait for their symptoms to develop, and for the lift to come in the middle of the night to take them to the sanatorium, the emotions of the children are continually changing, and so are their friendships and the group dynamics. If any one of the children exemplifies the words of the strapline, ‘Everyone dies. It’s how you choose to live that counts’, it is Clara. But it could equally well apply to any of the inmates, as this is the dilemma they are faced with having received their prognoses. Perhaps it applies to the reader as well. If life is so impermanent, how are we to live our lives?
Normal by Graeme Cameron
In a busy sub-genre, this serial killer novel stands out from the crowd for me in a number of ways. Firstly, the concept and writing are extremely clever. The protagonist, the serial killer, is interesting, scarily likeable (if you didn’t know about some of his predilections and cooking habits), smart and funny. Forensic Psychology tells us that many serial killers and psychopaths can be charming, and Cameron’s protagonist both conforms with and departs from the stereotype in different ways. Told from the viewpoint of the killer, some of his observations made me scream with laughter, sometimes because of how funny they are but also out of shock at what I was reading. Some of the throwaway comments are so simultaneously clever and funny, I did a double take along the lines of ‘What the actual flip?’ Normal has some brilliant characters. Erica is a superb match for her captor and I really enjoyed their exchanges. It’s gory in places and requires the reader to suspend their sense of morality, and I absolutely loved it.
Vicky Newham © 2016