Feature: Books Of The Year, 2021

My favourite reads from the past 12 months

I thought 2020 was something of year – it turns out that 2021 was even more of a <expletive deleted> year… I decided not to review for a while here and there and just read, which helped with the books-as-escape-from-reality concept. So, the numbers: 112 books read by 109 authors (77 male and 32 female, which I track in an effort to read more equally – must try harder). Against 89 books by 84 authors in 2020, it’s pretty good, and a lot more than I thought. Reading 14 books in one month for the Ngaio Marsh Awards helped the total, as did both being a Bloody Scotland Book Club panellist and chairing a few festival panels. But it’s not about how many books you read, it’s about how much you enjoy those you do pick up – if you only read six books but loved them all, that’s great! I enjoyed a lot of the books I read, but as ever there are some that stood out. Here’s a trip through the highlights of my reading year.

January is always a trial, isn’t it? And a fresh UK lockdown was an extra trial… I often struggle to read through the SAD but this year I decided to read without reviewing for a while and sliced into the TBR stack. Then I was asked to do a pilot for the Bloody Scotland Book Club: would we read Louise Welsh‘s The Cutting Room and chat about it? I’ve had the book for at least a decade, and what an idiot I was not getting round to reading it because it’s utterly stunning – the combination of character, plot, evocation of place and the most beautiful style takes your breath away.

In February I was blown away by Written In Bone by Professor Dame Sue Black, a lyrical and sometimes blackly comic journey through the body and a few of her past cases. I recall seeing her and Val McDermid on a book festival panel several years ago and it was both hugely informative and hilariously funny. My life is improved when there is a new Tony McLean novel out from James OswaldWhat Will Burn was a particularly excellent entry in the series, with lots of holding-the-breath-while-turning-the-pages moments. Another series entry with more power than ever was Bound by Vanda Symon, featuring New Zealand cop Sam Shepherd on a team investigating a case that is not at all what it seems at first glance, with the bonus element of virtual travel.

There’s only one problem with my favourite book from March and that is it’s impossible to put it down – turn off your phone and make sure the kids are occupied and the dog is walked, because you won’t want any interruptions once you start. Tuva Moodyson creator Will Dean’s The Last Thing To Burn is his first standalone novel and it is so brutal yet compelling and powerful I don’t think it’ll ever leave my head. The wide open landscapes of the Fens become unbearably claustrophobic, and what his protagonist deals with is unspeakable. It’s a tour de force.

April saw me on a panel for the Bloody Scotland Book Club and chairing an event for the Locked Up Festival, the latter of which involved chatting with the undisputed Queen Of Crime Val McDermid (discussing Still Life, the latest Karen Pirie novel combining old bones and a hot new case) and Liam McIlvanney, creator of 1970s Glasgow-set The Quaker, which evokes the period wonderfully and painfully in equal measure. A second McDermid treat for me was choosing The Distant Echo for the BSBC and getting to reread it once more. The St Andrews setting of the first part always draws me in as it’s my alma mater, but the plot (with the first appearance of Karen Pirie) is a doozy too. 

In May I was mostly reading entries for the Ngaio Marsh Debut Prize, and there were several I enjoyed, but Kim Hunt’s The Beautiful Dead was my favourite. While she didn’t win, she’s someone whose work I’d seek out, as she took me back to Australia in just a few sentences and I loved her protagonist, Cal. I went from Australia to Iceland for Solveig Palsdottir’s Silenced, though she is more interested in character than setting, and in tracing the toxic effects of money and power and family ties. These themes are also found in Sarah Sultoon’s The Source which I read ahead of chairing her on a panel for Aye Write! but Sultoon takes them in a very different direction, using a twin timeline and a factual framework to devastating effect.

June‘s highlights are eclectic to say the least. On a whim I borrowed from my parents’ bookcase and reread Daphne Du Maurier’s The House On The Strand which I first read as a teenager. As with all the books of hers I’ve read it’s distinctly weird, but compelling. I had the privilege of receiving an early proof of DL Marshall’s Anthrax Island… and then didn’t get to reading it til well after publication day. Sorry, Danny. It’s a real cracker – a splash of Alistair MacLean, a soupçon of Sherlock Holmes, a locked room mystery within a locked room mystery that nods to Agatha Christie, and a walloping adventure with smart action and some lovely turns of phrase that is entirely Marshall’s (and Danny is surely king of author merchandise with all those stickers and fridge magnets). I read three of Derek Farrell’s novels this year, but my favourite was Death Of An Angel – the Danny Bird series is uniformly fresh and excellent, but this one really chimed with me, from the snowy opening to the heartbreaking epilogue. 

July brought Rob Parker’s Far From The Tree – a potential serial killer investigation that comes far too close to home for comfort for the cop in charge, set in Warrington, north-west England. Parker is a writing machine, racking up seven (or is it eight?) novels since his debut in 2017, but he is also a master of quality control. Another masterful writer I’ve been watching since reading his McIlvanney-shortlisted How To Kill Friends And Implicate People is Jay Stringer. Don’t Tell A Soul is set in New York and is delightfully twisty creation – a PI novel, a psychological thriller, and an opening that you can’t ignore: “Can everybody be telling the truth? No. But could everybody be lying? Maybe.”

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August I ventured out to my first live in-person events since early March 2020 – how could I not nip across the city when there was an amazing panel of writers all with books out at the same time: Val McDermid, Ambrose Parry (aka Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman), Mary Paulson-Ellis and Doug Johnstone. If that doesn’t tell people that Scottish crime fiction is a broad church of excellence, I don’t know what will. Highlight of this month’s reading: Doug Johnstone’s The Great Silence, without a doubt. The Skelfs are a wonderful group of women, and the whole trilogy is filled with great plots, black humour and real heart. Best news of the month? That there will be more Skelfs novels.

September saw the return of Bloody Scotland in person and online, a hybrid mix which made the festival more manageable and more relaxed and more brilliant than ever. I hope they keep this format in future. Chairing a panel on the Friday afternoon was nerve-wracking but it was a pleasure to meet and chat with Ewan Morrison, Alan Parks, Sharon Bairden and William McIntyre. Two standout reads this month: Rod Reynolds’ Black Reed Bay is the start of a series, and it’s a stunner. It felt like a writer had gone back after 20 books or so and decided to write a prequel, there’s so much depth and texture to plot and setting and character. Val McDermid’s 1979 is set in Glasgow and is loosely inspired by her first years as a journalist in the city. She’s my favourite crime fiction author because of her determination to do something different with every book, and boy does she do something different with this one. The plot is fascinating and mercurial, the characters hugely relatable – and the way she plays with structure is bold and brilliant. 

October is #Orentober, a celebration of all things Orenda Books. But due to <life things> while I had lots of reading time and needed the distraction of books, I had no headspace to review anything – sorry Karen – though I did read ten Orenda titles and can reaffirm my idea that everything from this feisty publishing house is worth reading even if you don’t love them all to the same extent. But I did one blog tour, for Red Dog, which I would not have missed for the world, for Sharon Bairden’s You Need Me, her second novel. Bairden likes poking around in the dark places of people’s minds, while bringing a huge amount of empathy to bear too, making for novels that are often tough to read but always rewarding. 

November brought me No Quarter Given by Neil Broadfoot – having read some first-draft chapters I knew it would be a corker and it really delivered. The Connor Fraser series is known for crunching violence and fast pacing; this instalment chucks in a massive amount of emotion, and the combination makes for a five-star read. Other five-star reads were The Dark Remains by William McIlvanney & Ian Rankin, an act of archaeology and ventriloquism, as Rankin has said in interviews, channelling the late Godfather of Tartan Noir’s voice and producing a genuinely excellent novel. I was back on the Bloody Scotland Book Club this month, delighted to be revisiting The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh and Natural Causes by James Oswald, and equally delighted to be discovering David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts. In parts it is rage-inducing, reading about the situation of Native Americans, and in part it is rage-inducing because of what happens to the characters. It also has moments of humour, intrigue and insight into the life and culture of those on the reservation, all wrapped up in a lovely, quiet style. 

In December, a random purchase of Stuart MacBride’s Twelve Days Of Winter short story collection proved a brilliant choice, the linked tales had me horrified and laughing, often at the same time. I spent the last days before Christmas reading James Oswald’s Nowhere To Run, the latest Con Fairchild novel, which is set mostly in Wales and dives into local legends as well as putting Con into a few tough situations. I do love it when a male writer creates a female series protagonist as good as Con – another is Rebecca Connolly, from the pen (well, keyboard) of Douglas Skelton. A Rattle Of Bones came out in the summer but I was saving this as a treat… Sorry to take so long, Douglas! Another superb novel in this series – and he has said there are more to come, which is excellent news indeed.

Honourable mentions for writing books that were entertaining, interesting and fine entries into the crime fiction canon:  Roxanne Bouchard (translated by David WarrinerJames BrabazonChris BrookmyreSimone Buchholz (translated by Rachel Ward), Will CarverPaul Cleave, Sue Grafton, Elly GriffithsBogdan Hrib, JD KirkSandra IrelandMichael J MaloneTJ Newman, Alan Parks, Antti Tuomainen (translated by David Hackston) and Matt Wesolowki.

All the thank-yous to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours, Meggy Roussel and Sean Coleman at Red Dog Press, and Ewa Sherman for Corylus Books for blog tour invites which broadened my horizons. To Orenda Books, Polygon Books, Canongate (especially Jamie Norman), Canelo, Fiona Brownlee for Muswell Press and Sabah Khan at Simon & Schuster for sending me books; to authors Jay Stringer, James Oswald and Neil Broadfoot who personally put a copy of their latest into my hands, and to Tim Donald for filling my bag with several early proofs when I bumped into him at Bloody Scotland. I will never forget that it’s a real privilege to be given books, I know how lucky I am. Big punk thanks to Fahrenheit Press too, who gifted me two of their fine and dandy T-shirts for shouting about some of the excellent books they publish – check out their top merch online.

More thanks to the authors who agreed to be gently grilled for my Five By Five interview slot (Derek Farrell, Douglas Skelton, Sharon BairdenSJI Holliday, Caro Ramsay and Lilja Sigurðardóttir). Thanks to those who have invited me to ask questions of authors on book festival panels (Luca & Steve for the Two Crime Writers Locked Up Festival, Bob McDevitt for both Aye Write! and Bloody Scotland, and Joanne Baird and the team at Portobello Book Festival). Thanks also to the Bloody Scotland team for asking me to be one of the Book Club panellists (I hope I wasn’t too incoherent – I do get stumbly when over-excited…). Thanks to Grab This Book for the invite to share my Decades Library selections, which was a real challenge but hugely enjoyable (it’s a totally addictive series, do check it out). And thanks to Craig Sisterson for inviting me to help judge the Ngaio Marsh Awards Debut Prize, which was a real honour and hugely interesting.

A lot of people are listing what they are looking forward to reading next year – I have no idea, bar a handful, of what is coming, and that’s the best way, I think. There will be great books, and often the greatest ones aren’t those you were anticipating but those which sneak up on you and take over your head. When I find a good ‘un, 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, folks.

It was so good to be back in a bar at Bloody Scotland – roll on next year’s book events and festivals!

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