After last year’s tardy effort, I decided to write this year’s before 2012 actually ends for the very last time. I thought my previous tally of 60 books was on the high side but this year I’ve surpassed myself and set a new benchmark of 72. It’s at this point I should express my gratitude for the existence of the Kindle because otherwise my house would be reduced to a series of book-walled labyrinths.
Magic and fallen angels
Let’s start with the second two books in the Rivers of London series, Moon over Soho and Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch. I once saw these described as Harry Potter joins the Met, which is a gratingly inaccurate and unflattering description of them. I mean, I like Harry Potter as much as the next person, but just because a book has magic in it, doesn’t mean it bears comparison. A bit like every single Scandinavian author to be published since the Dragon Tattoo books is referred to as ‘the new Stieg Larsson’. Anyway, I digress. The Rivers of London books are sharp, witty and fun but tinged with magical violence and a dark edge. There was one paragraph in the last book which made me do an actual LOL on the train and look around for someone to explain it to – anyone who remembers Pulp’s ‘Common People’ will know what I mean.
More magic followed in the form of Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches and I also read the second in the trilogy when I went on holiday later in the year, Shadow of Night. Even after having read two of them, I still cannot decide if I like these books or not. Without adding too much spoiling detail, they’re about a witch and a vampire, along with their respective communities and how they get involved in some historical derring do. The heroine can be teeth-grindingly irritating and some of the descriptions of her relationship with the vampire were repetitive enough to make me want to hurl the book (if it hadn’t been in electronic form) off the nearest balcony. Imagine a more grown-up Twilight and the wearyingly lame and clumsy Bella. But on the plus side, some of the historical stuff was pretty interesting and they’re a reasonably fun read albeit on the long side.
The 11th in the Charlie Parker series by John Connolly, The Wrath of Angels, was every bit as good as the previous books. Private detective Parker finds himself drawn to hidden evil not of this world at the same time as the evil is drawn to him, usually with disastrous results. Connolly is another author with a gift for a dark and terrifying tale. You could be forgiven for scoffing at the notion of a PI chasing down fallen angels and other paranormal strangeness, but if you read the books, the laugh would be frozen on your face fairly quickly. There’s a sense of menace and unease throughout The Wrath of Angels and Connolly’s flawed heroes find themselves fighting for their lives in the depths of a Maine forest.
What better way to celebrate Halloween than to read a scary book? The Slender Man by Simon John Cox, to be precise. You could go and terrorise your neighbours by demanding sweets while dressed in a bedsheet but I’d recommend the book instead. This was another book I reviewed this year as I liked it so much. It’s pretty hard to write a truly scary book, I think, but Cox does a fabulous job of it. Adam Bradford’s sister Hannah goes missing, so he drops everything to go and assist the police. When he arrives at her cottage he discovers a life in disarray, cryptic notes and a myth which may or may not be real. Also see Totentanz by the same author for more spine-chillers.
Now here’s a book I definitely liked, Alex Marwood’s The Wicked Girls. I liked it so much that I did a review of it. Alex Marwood is the alter ego of another favourite of mine, Serena Mackesy. The story is centred around two 11 year old girls who are convicted of the murder of another child and what happens to them. The backdrop to this is a serial killer on the loose in a generic grubby British seaside town. Having been both a regular visitor to Brighton in the 70s and 80s and growing up in the kind of nothingy semi-rural town where the story begins, the descriptions of the settings are scarily accurate while Marwood captures the nuances of the personalities involved with painful reality.
This year also saw my introduction to another new author with Elizabeth Haynes’ Into The Darkest Corner. I’m quite fond of the odd (meaning ‘lots’) crime novel and this one’s told from the point of view of the victim, a woman with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Her backstory is told in a series of flashbacks involving a violent and controlling ex while she tries to come to terms with her condition in the current time. It’s one of those books where you want to shriek at the protagonist not to be so fucking stupid and then you remember you’ve done equally stupid things yourself. I also read her second book, Revenge of the Tide. The pole-dancing-by-night, top-salesperson-by-day Genevieve is considerably less sympathetic and likeable than Darkest Corner’s Cathy but it’s nonetheless an entertaining read.
I’m a big fan of Emily Barr and her latest book this year, Stranded, was no exception. Barr’s novels tend to focus on a main character who’s running away from her past or hiding a catastrophic secret. Stranded goes along much the same lines, with a recently-divorced woman disappearing to Malaysia to find herself only to get caught up with something she thought she’d left behind. This was better (I thought) than last year’s The First Wife and a very enjoyable holiday read. Well, or anytime read, I guess. I just happened to read it on holiday.
Culture, spies and travels
And now for the year’s dose of culture – Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Some of you might remember that I mentioned Wolf Hall, Beyond Black and A Place of Greater Safety in last year’s round-up. Bring up the Bodies is the follow-up to Wolf Hall, continuing Thomas Cromwell’s tale of life at the dangerous and beguiling court of Henry VIII. It’s historical fiction quite unlike any other I’ve read – for a start it doesn’t assume the reader is a moron and explain every unfamiliar term. But where many novels set in this era concentrate on the glamour of the court and Henry’s assorted wives, Mantel exposes the political machinations of everyone involved. It’s rich and fascinating stuff.
Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is a WWII spy thriller about a woman recruited to work undercover in occupied France. It’s a fantastic story and it comes as a shock sometimes while reading it to remember how young the heroine is (19). It’s beautifully written and very moving – the bravery, fear and sense of danger lurking are compelling, the ending shocking.
This time in the uneasy era between WWI and II, City of Shadows by Ariana Franklin offers a new twist on the Anastasia mystery. Scarred photographer Esther agrees to babysit Anastasia pretender Anna Anderson in Berlin and finds herself caught up in a series of murders. It’s a fascinating book, Franklin had a gift for creating strong and believable female lead characters and the descriptions of the city’s post-war depression is superb. The same author also wrote Mistress of the Art of Death, a quadrilogy of medieval crime thrillers centred around a doctor, Adelia Aguilar. I only found out about these this year when searching for books by Diana Norman (Franklin was Norman’s pen name), who I was saddened to find, passed away in 2011. I have managed to scrape together a collection of Norman’s books over the years, many of which are out of print, from second hand sources. These are historical fiction, mostly set around real events involving peripheral characters and are gripping reads.
Throwing in a travelogue, you could do a very great deal worse than to read Ben Hatch’s Are We Nearly There Yet? The intrepid author decides to undertake an epic 8000 mile journey around Britain accompanied by two children, his wife Dinah and a Vauxhall Astra. It’s truly funny and one cannot help but marvel at the Hatch parents’ patience, stamina and retention of their sanity. I hate to call it a ‘feel-good book’ because they’re invariably sucky but this one isn’t sucky at all.
Finally, Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? tells a wonderful story via a series of letters and emails about an eccentric mum, her genius husband and their fearfully intelligent child. Of course, the family is horrendously dysfunctional and Bernadette’s eccentricity is misconstrued and twisted by interfering neighbours eventually leading to her disappearance. Her daughter Bee resolves to find out what happened to her. I loved this book. It’s blackly comic, sad and once you get used to the unusual narrative, very hard to put down.If you liked Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Bernadette is probably right up your street.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, a story about the slowing of the world’s turning told by a teenage girl which is mesmerising and touching. Tideline by Penny Hancock in which a woman in her forties on the edge of a breakdown kidnaps a 15 year old boy. It’s claustrophobic and a great debut thriller. Spy thriller, The Expats, by Chris Pavone takes a couple who think they know everything about each other and chucks in some paranoia and murder for good measure. The reliably brilliant husband and wife writing force that is Nicci French also had the second in their Frieda Klein series out, called Tuesday’s Gone.
So, that was 2012. I can’t wait to see what 2013 will bring. Assuming my Kindle doesn’t implode beforehand. Hope you enjoy reading some of these as much as I did.