My favourite reads from the last 12 months
I’ve read a shedload of books this year, and yet looking back I haven’t reviewed much at all – sorry about that if you have been seeking my thoughts, but it just turned into one of <those> years. Hopefully the reviews that did go up, and the author interviews, kept you entertained. I aim to do more in 2023 but I can’t promise anything other than the reviews that do arrive will be considered and I will continue only recommending excellent reads.
So, the numbers: 143 books read by 118 authors (67.5 male and 50.5 female, which I track in an effort to read more equally – I still must try harder. The 0.5 in each is Ambrose Parry :-D). That’s a bit insane, no wonder I felt tired of reading at times! (In 2021 I read 112 books; in 2020, it was 89.) Reading for the Ngaio Marsh Awards, the Bloody Scotland Book Club and festival panels helped boost the total, as did a Terry Pratchett binge in January and a Peter O’Donnell binge in April-May; my go-to rereads when I don’t feel like reading something new.
I joined the Twitter #BeatTheBacklog hashtaggers in an effort to get on top of things, which was going really well – until it wasn’t… Books read from the TBR mountain (which I define as anything that has been lurking for more than one month): 50. Yay! Books that somehow snuck into the house: 63. Oops! (Though I did read 21 of those incomers within a month, so that’s something…)
But as I always say, 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 the annual trip through the highlights of my reading year.
I have an odd habit: when I acquire a book I know I’m going to love, I often find it a struggle to pick it up – because then it’ll be over, and the joy of the anticipation is gone (even if replaced by the joy from having read the book). On that front, my first read of 2022 was Alexandra Sokoloff’s Shadow Moon, which I read a slice of before chairing her on a panel at Bute Noir in 2019 but as it wasn’t out in paperback til a few months later I never finished it… If you need some righteous female vengeance against predatory abusive men in your life in a terrific wrapper of FBI-guy-chases-a-serial-killer, get your eyeballs on this series. It was swiftly followed by a trio of excellent novels: Craig Robertson‘s Watch Him Die; Luca Veste‘s The Six, and Margie Orford‘s Water Music.
An old title but new to me, Roger Hobbs’ Vanishing Games, caught my attention this month; a cracker of a chase thriller mystery set mostly in Macau. I thoroughly enjoyed Jane Harper‘s The Lost Man, too, her evocation of the Australian outback, all heat and dust and oppression, is glorious. But the standout of the month, and easily one of the standouts of the year, was Rob Parker‘s And Your Enemies Closer, which was released in audiobook and is coming out in print imminently. The second of his Thirty Miles Trilogy, it ratcheted up the tension perfectly throughout and the cliffhanger ending left me absolutely gobsmacked. (Thanks to bijou and brilliant festival Bay Tales for being at just the right moment for Rob to give me a proof – get along to their next instalment of books by the seaside on 4 March.)
This month I was on the Bloody Scotland Book Club panel and had the joy of rereading the fantastic Thunder Bay by Douglas Skelton, and persuading the panel to tackle Get Carter by Ted Lewis, which I have had something of an obsession with since reading Nick Triplow‘s biography of Lewis a few years ago. We also read Laura Shepherd-Robinson‘s Daughters Of Night, which is a huge volume but had me absolutely transfixed. But head and shoulders above even these was another standout of the year, Vanda Symon‘s Faceless – I’ve loved her Sam Shepard series, but this standalone, with a homeless man as the protagonist, was in another league altogether in terms of plot, style, tension – everything.
My pal Chris has been singing the praises of Laurie R King for years, and I finally understand why, after reading The Birth Of A New Moon and Keeping Watch. A more literary feel, with often a slower pace that builds beautifully, I can only apologise to the author and to Chris for not getting there sooner! The other highlight of April was Sarah Sultoon’s The Shot – her depiction of journalists and journalism is a refreshing change after so many cliches elsewhere in fiction – and her choice of subject and the ethical dilemmas within was pitch perfect.
Two outstanding books from blog tours this month: Alan Parks‘ May God Forgive, which went on to win the McIlvanney Prize in September, a worthy winner if there ever was one, and Helen FitzGerald’s Keep Her Sweet (I chaired Helen at Bute Noir in August, too, and she was fantastic). Completely different in setting, character, plot – everything! – but both are amazing books. Hat tips also to Elly Griffiths‘ The Zig Zag Girl and Sara Sheridan‘s Brighton Belle, which are not my usual territory (historical, and with a lighter touch that focuses on mystery rather than violence) but were very refreshing.
I was polishing off the reading for the 2022 Ngaio Marsh Awards Debut Prize this month – they aren’t all available in the UK, and some of them were a little shaky here and there (though there is no shortage of wonderful fresh ideas), but if you read only one, you should make it Jacqueline Bublitz‘s Before You Knew My Name, which waltzed off with both the debut and the main prizes. It’s a real envelope-pusher, taking the idea of giving the victim a personality and a voice to fascinating lengths. My other standout this month was Margie Orford‘s The Eye Of The Beholder. I’ve loved her South Africa series featuring Clare Hart, uncompromisingly feminist and generally cracking plots; this takes all that and dials it up to 11 while moving between three women and three countries. Superb stuff.
A mixed month: It was fabulous to be back in Harrogate for the Theakstons Festival; less good was coming home with Covid… But being trapped in the house did mean I experienced Emily Noble’s Disgrace by Mary Paulson Ellis very differently: I live literally around the corner from where it’s set, but couldn’t go and look so was delighted with her vivid writing of place as well as people. I was back on the Bloody Scotland Book Club this month, reading Mary’s novel, plus Johana Gustawsson‘s Block 46 (an often painful but hugely powerful read) and Reginald Hill’s On Beulah Height (my choice, and I still love it a decade or more on from when I last read it; the sense of people simultaneously hefted but also chained to a place is memorable). I really enjoy the book club – it’s great to read and think about something you wouldn’t choose, and it’s always interesting to hear everyone’s thoughts. Catch up with the previous episodes on Bloody Scotland’s YouTube channel, and keep an eye on the Book Club’s Facebook page for info about the next session.
It took me 20 years to get round to reading The Cutting Room, so seven months from publication to reading Louise Welsh‘s The Second Cut seems almost unduly hasty… It’s a sharp, sometimes almost savage novel which paints its varied cast of misfits and outsiders with a clear but sympathetic eye and has a literary feel alongside its snappy pacing, and is definitely one for your TBR (she’s also a wonderful interviewee; if you can see her on a panel, do). Ambrose Parry‘s A Corruption Of Blood sat on my TBR stack for a year – I am so ashamed! It’s the best of the series yet, looking at the nasty underbelly of 1850 Edinburgh and concerned with families both of blood and those we create for ourselves. James Oswald’s All That Lives also spent a few months waiting patiently for me to pick it up, but when I did I pretty much inhaled it; I really love the Tony McLean series with its supernatural threads.
I had a fabulous time at Bloody Scotland, and thanks to the digital option was able to spend a lot of time hanging out with various people knowing I could catch up with panels later online rather than running myself ragged trying to see everything. I hope this continues because it’s made the festival far more relaxed for me and more accessible to those with issues of time, geography, mobility, finances and so on. An extra this year was an invite to chat with Sharon Bairden (Chapter In My Life) and Gordon McGhie (Grab This Book) about William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw for Damian Barr’s Big Scottish Book Club TV series. I’ve not watched the result but you should be able to find it on BBC iPlayer – and you should definitely read the novel, there’s a reason McIlvanney was the “Godfather of Tartan Noir”. Other reading highlights of September were Will Carver‘s latest, Suicide Thursday, which was not what I expected and all the more powerful for it. And of course the latest Skelfs novel from Doug Johnstone, Black Hearts, was another standout of the year; I love this series and these women – though I fear for their mental health if they don’t get a break soon, Johnstone has seriously put them through the wringer.
A little #Orentober action, as I caught up with several of Orenda’s back catalogue – the standouts for me this month were Louise Beech‘s I Am Dust, which the ex-theatre kid in me loved, and in particular Simone Buchholz’s River Clyde, which is drenched in emotion and the aftermath of trauma and is like nothing I’ve read before. And after seeing her at Bloody Scotland on a brilliant panel with Doug Johnstone and Mary Paulson-Ellis talking about Death As The Day Job, I devoured AK Turner‘s Body Language featuring mortuary assistant Cassie Raven – matter-of-fact about the processes after death, with a hint of something otherworldly, and pleasingly page-turning.
It’s a tiny volume, but Denise Mina’s Rizzio packs a real punch in its retelling of an incident in the life of Mary, Queen Of Scots. How did I not find time to read it before now? Don’t ask… I also enjoyed Mari Hannah‘s Monument To Murder, in large part due to its hilariously accurate depiction of out-in-the-sticks Northumberland town Alnwick, which is where I went to school. A total contrast to that came in Helen Fields‘s The Institution. It’s not out til March 2023 but I bagged a proof at Bloody Scotland and picked it up on a whim one day. OMFG. This is a terrifying, visceral novel – there was a point where I was torn between being desperate to put the book down as one part was so awful and being desperate to turn the pages to see how it played out (the latter won out, of course).
In December I had the joy of being among bookish friends at Newcastle Noir, which is always a delightful festival. I read just five books, and was underwhelmed by four of them. I remedied that by sneaking the fifth in just under the wire and choosing something from the TBR that was guaranteed to satisfy: Val McDermid‘s 1989. I’ve loved Val’s books for a long time, and this series is so good in many ways: An accurately-drawn journalist, a young woman protagonist, the events and atmosphere of the years chosen, the music playlists at the end – and an author three decades into her writing career and still pushing to do it better and do it differently rather than resting on her laurels.
Honourable mentions for writing books that were entertaining, interesting and fine entries into the crime fiction canon which I caught up with this year and am happy to recommend to all and sundry: Kia Abdullah; Neil Broadfoot; M Sean Coleman; Matt Johnson; JD Kirk; Neil Lancaster; Jónína Leósdóttir; Deborah Masson; Lynne McEwan; Craig Russell; Antti Tuomainen. Big shiny silver medals for all. And another to Heather Martin for her stunning biography of Lee Child, which I may dip into again when I get the time to reread a few Reacher novels.
All the thank-yous to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours, Sean Coleman at Red Dog Press, and Ewa Sherman for Corylus Books for blog tour invites which broadened my horizons. To all the bloggers who have shared my posts online and shared hugs and coffees and other beverages IRL. To Orenda Books, Polygon Books, Canongate Books, Canelo (especially Thanhmai Bui-Van) Oldcastle Books in its various guises, and publicist Laura Sherlock for sending me books; to author Rob Parker for a print proof of And Your Enemies Closer cos he knows I don’t do audiobooks, and to author James Oswald who always makes sure I have a copy of his latest in my hands and is gracious when it takes me six months to get round to reading it… I will never forget that it’s a real privilege to be given books.
More thanks to the authors who agreed to be gently grilled for my Five By Five interview slot (James Oswald, Helen Fields, Vanda Symon, Neil Broadfoot, Morgan Cry, Mary Paulson-Ellis, Deborah Masson, DV Bishop, Will Carver, Lisa Gray), do read their books! Thanks to those who have invited me to ask questions of authors on book festival panels (Craig Robertson for Bute Noir and Bob McDevitt for Bloody Scotland) and also thanks to Fiona Brownlee and Dawn Geddes for all sorts of Bloody Scotland things, including Book Club cupcakes. 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 through excitement, as I’d love to get invited back on…), which led to that chat about Laidlaw for the tellybox. And thanks to Craig Sisterson for inviting me to help judge the Ngaio Marsh Awards Debut Prize for a second year running, which was a real honour and brought me some great reads I’d never have come across otherwise.
A lot of people are listing what they are looking forward to reading in the next year – as ever I have no idea, bar a handful, of what is coming, and that’s the best way, I think. Often the greatest ones aren’t those you were anticipating but those which sneak up on you. 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 – after all, the only thing better than reading a great book is sharing a great book with others. Happy reading, folks.
From left, authors Neil Broadfoot, Stuart Johnstone, CF Peterson and Lynne McEwan, and me and my trusty folder (so I don’t wave my hands around all the time when I talk!), were The Scot Squad at Bloody Scotland 2022.