Feature: Books of the year, 2020

My favourite reads of this <very special> year…

I think we all need a wee dram to celebrate making it through 2020…

It has been something of a year, hasn’t it? Thank goodness for the armchair travel and general escapism of books! 2020 was also the year that I finally got this blog up and running after literally years of talking about. Starting the blog also started me on blog tours, which led me to read some titles I probably wouldn’t have come across, but thoroughly enjoyed. Thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours, and to Meggy Roussel at Red Dog Press for their invites – I wish I could say yes to more of them!

So, the year’s numbers: 89 books read in total by 84 different authors (v 85 by 71 authors in 2019), which isn’t too shabby. Male/female author split was 66 and 24 (v 48 and 23 in 2019). I track this as I know I read far more men than women and feel I should try to improve that (my UK-US v Everywhere Else balance is worse still, but there are *so many books* to get through…).

I always have a reading slump in January somehow, and this year was no different. But thanks to James Oswald‘s Nothing To Hide and Bury Them Deep (and the pal who loaned me a proof of the latter) I got back into the swing of things. The end of the month brought a great double bill in Doug Johnstone‘s A Dark Matter and Robert Crais‘ A Dangerous Man. They are very different, but both interesting, surprising, reliably excellent and always produce books that hold your attention until you realise you’ve burned the dinner. They are both superb chroniclers of people and emotions while creating seriously intense plots.

February highlights were undoubtedly Derek Farrell‘s Death Of A Nobody and Vanda Symon‘s Containment. Derek’s Danny Bird series (published by the punks at Fahrenheit Press) is an absolute joy, hilarious, heart-breaking and plots just the right side of bonkers – and no-one, but no-one, loves his characters as much as this writer. Having just said I’m bad at geographical spread of reading, I am obsessed with Vanda, creator of the Sam Shepherd series set in Dunedin, New Zealand. Full of fire and passion and fun, Sam is a character who wears her heart (and her love of Toffee Pops) on her sleeve.

February and early March brought a string of events (remember those?), with launches for Helen Fields, James Oswald and Douglas Skelton, Noir At The Bar in Newcastle and Edinburgh, the Orenda Roadshow, plus Granite Noir. I was knackered by the end of it all, but so glad I crammed them all in in light of what happened soon after. Yes, March brought lockdown to the UK… I remember vividly where I was when the PM shut the country down: on a train reading Paul Burston‘s The Closer I Get, which immediately became even more claustrophobic. Thankfully it’s a hugely gripping, suspenseful novel, which filled the time nicely when I couldn’t leave the house for more than an hour a day. I was also grateful in lockdown for Brian McGilloway‘s Bleed A River Deep and The Rising, which didn’t make up for the cancellation of Noireland in Belfast, but they are two books in a damn fine series (set on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and distinctly nuanced like that liminal setting) and damn fine series are to be treasured.

I read several Emerald Noir works in April, with special mention to Jo Spain‘s The Darkest Place, which was distinctly unsettling, and Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee, who is frankly amazing. I can’t put into words how unlike any author I’ve read Eoin is, just pick up a book and start reading. The style, the use of language, the not a word wasted brevity that combines with a lyrical, poetic flow – stunning. In April and May I got through 13 books in each month and in the three months of full lockdown I ticked off around 35 books. I thought I might finally make a decent dent in the TBR pile, but then I acquired a few more books from online sources… Some of those acquisitions proved golden, particularly Howard Linskey‘s Ungentlemanly Warfare and Hunting The Hangman, set during the Second World War and dealing with agents of the Special Operations Executive and their dangerous, adrenaline-filled lives. And I finally picked up Nathan Blackwell‘s The Sound Of Her Voice. NZ-set, it’s a police procedural, but like nothing I’ve read in that genre – in part because it follows a case over many years rather than a few days; in part because its cop characters are so far from the usual suspects (if you’ll forgive the pun). Really thought-provoking stuff.

My other top read of May was Zoe Sharp‘s Bones In The River. Though I have known Zoe for a couple of years, I’ve shamefully never read any of her books, but since I was chairing a Newcastle Noir panel she was on, I finally got there (the panel also featured Ed James, Noelle Holten and Neil Broadfoot, and is still up on the NN YouTube channel, along with lots of other great interviews and conversations the Jacky “Dr Noir” Collins and the NN team put together for us). Oh, my… the backdrop of the Appleby horse fair, the quirks of the central police and forensics duo, the even-handed approach to the Traveller characters, the empathy and care taken with the central case of a missing child, and above all for me the moments where the very landscape is given a voice. Just read it, OK?

I wrote earlier this year about three book festivals that took themselves online, with varying approaches. One that didn’t go fully online, but still offered some interesting conversations was Hull Noir, which I had been going to attend for the first time after having met two of its founders, Nick Quantrill and Nick Triplow, several times over the past couple of years and been enthused by their love of the region and its writers. In lieu of that trip, in June I read Ted Lewis’ Plender, one of a pair of his novels reissued in 2020 by No Exit Press. I had an inkling that Plender wouldn’t be an easy read and in some ways, it’s not, the two main characters are pretty horrible, the central premise is awful, and the ending is bleak. But it’s also written in such a fresh, easy style and keeps you guessing about these two men and the friendship they once had. You can’t help being gripped by the story and I turned the pages compulsively, helplessly. 

About as far as you can get from Hull in many ways was Lisa Gray‘s Bad Memory, the second in her series with PI Jessica Shaw, which I devoured in July. Set in California, it’s a long way from Lisa’s native Glasgow but the heat and the desert and small town life are excellently realised, and the plot wriggles like a sidewinder. Back in the UK, Rod ReynoldsBlood Red City grabbed me by the throat – it started off being about a possible murder and ended up being something altogether murkier. Another novel to take the cliche of “the setting is a character too” and remind of us how it should be done, giving pitch-perfect renditions of the city’s contrasts of glass towers and grimy side streets, rich and poor, privileged and downtrodden.

In August, I picked up Helen FitzGerald‘s Ash Mountain and knew within a few pages was going to be a book of the year; it’s such a powerful, unflinching, rich novel in terms of language and character and plot. It evokes rural Australia perfectly, and is full of things strange to a UK eye, yet it has a universality that draws you in. There is pain and humour and fear and love and so, so much in this slim volume. It resonates in my head still.

September brought an insane amount of new titles to the marketplace, and I felt for all those smaller authors who got lost in the deluge. Among them was my pal Neil Broadfoot‘s The Point Of No Return, the third Connor Fraser novel, which sees him flexing his writing muscles in some new directions – I think it’s his best book yet, with plenty of character work to go along with that trademark action. This month also brought an online Bloody Scotland and the second Skelfs novel from Doug Johnstone, The Big Chill, which sees the three generations of women deal with both the fallout from A Dark Matter and with new mysteries. Doug has always written women brilliantly, but in the Skelfs he has excelled himself. It’s a certainty that I’ll be re-reading these titles for years to come, and that’s a special treat indeed.

October is also #Orentober, a celebration of all things Orenda Books, and as you’ll see from the titles listed so far I’m a fan of this feisty publisher. I don’t love every title I’ve read to the same extent, but that logo means the contents will be interesting and fresh and worth my time. This month’s stand-outs were Matt Wesolowksi‘s Changeling and Lilja Sigurdardottir‘s Betrayal; very different, but both very satisfying. Matt’s podcast format for the Six Stories series is nifty, allowing a slow reveal of a story from different angles, keeping us guessing and keeping us hooked. His background in horror is to the fore in Changeling, which takes some dark paths to reach the truth. Betrayal can be described as a political thriller but that would sell it short – it’s also about relationships, painful compromises, the hazy nature of truth, and what life looks like when you’re a woman in the public eye. Another cracker of a tale from Lilja.

I always like to buy myself a birthday present, but this November I got an extra gift when Meggy at Red Dog Press asked me to join the blog tour for Sharon Bairden‘s Sins Of The Father. Sharon read the opening pages of Sins Of The Father at Bute Noir in 2019 and boy does rest of the book do that amazing opening justice. It takes on tricky subjects and handles them with so much care and empathy; it delivers some serious gut punches and some moments of pure evil glee, and it delivers a punchy and satisfying ending. It’s hard to believe it’s a debut novel, and I cannot wait to see what she does next.

Finally, in December, an apology: I received a proof of Douglas Skelton‘s The Blood Is Still early last year, had him sign it at his launch in Edinburgh promising him I’d read it soon. And it has turned out to be the last book I read in 2020… (So late, in fact, that the review won’t be up until 2021.) I could kick myself, too, it’s bloody brilliant. He took risks with Thunder Bay, the first Rebecca Connolly novel – fewer jokes; more emotions; a young, female protagonist; a new setting in the Highlands and the fictional island of Stoirm – and they paid off in spades. The Blood Is Still is a sure-footed damn fine read.

As ever, there are also honourable mentions for books that were interesting, entertaining and fine examples of their type: Tony Kent – Killer Intent; Sara Paretsky – Indemnity Only; Stuart Neville – The Final Silence; Kate Hamer – Crushed; Sarah Stovell – The Home; Martyn Waites – The Old Religion; Derek Farrell & Jo Perry for their tete beche pair of novellas; Ed James – Gone In Seconds; Noelle Holten – Dead Wrong; Denzil MeyrickJeremiah’s Bell; Morgan Cry Thirty-One Bones; Hallie Rubenhold – The Five; William Boyle City Of Margins; Robert B Parker – Night Passage.

A lot of lists are floating around of what people are looking forward to reading next year. All I know is there will be great books, and that often the greatest ones aren’t those you were anticipating but those which sneak up on you then set up permanent residence in the back of your head. When I find one, I’ll do my best to tell you in a review on TGWATCB why I think you should read it too – the only thing better than reading a great book is sharing a great book with others. Happy reading…

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