I can’t believe it’s that time again! And yet again, the choice wasn’t easy. It’s been a good reading/listening year with lots of fabulous books, and so, after much deliberation and in no particular order, here are my top reads/listens for this year.
Clicking on the book cover takes you to Amazon UK. Other links are included in the full review.
The Chalk Pit ~ Elly Griffiths
The Chalk Pit finds Ruth investigating the discovery of bones in the chalk tunnels below Norwich, excavating and testing the bones to calculate their age. They appears to more recent than anticipated and DCI Nelson is called into the investigation. Running concurrently is the police investigation into the disappearance and murders of rough sleepers in the Kings Lynn area. The plight of the homeless, the unpredictable nature of their situation, how they are viewed by others is a main focus of the storyline and was approached objectively, with thoughtfulness. The concept of an underground community and history of the Norwich tunnels is sad and fascinating at the same time and the combination of social and criminal issues, plus historical facts works well.
Clay Tongue ~ Nicholas Conley
Clay Tongue is a moving story of a little girl’s belief, determination and courage. Young Katie Mirowitz is a quiet, shy child, except when she’s with her Grandfather. Katie loves talking to him, even now when he can’t form coherent words anymore after his stroke, they always manage to communicate one way or another. But Grandfather is keeping a secret, Katie saw him trying to hide his journal. The knowledge gives her an unfamiliar, and not altogether comfortable, feeling in her heart. The writing is wonderful, sympathetic and effective in conveying anxiety and distress, the fragility and poignancy of the situation they all find themselves in. Descriptive phrasing evokes strong images. I enjoyed the inventiveness of the story very much, and the way the golem’s human characteristics are represented. I love the cover image which is almost ethereal, in keeping with the story. And, of course, the resolution.
The Emissary by Marcia Meara
I was intrigued, reading about ‘Gabe’ in Finding Hunter and am so glad Marcia Meara decided to extend his story. When Jake Daughtry dies while attempting to save someone’s life, he is immediately appropriated by Azrael before he can pass through the pearly gates. There’s far too much work now for the angels to deal with and Azrael believes he’s found the solution. Building an army of emissaries. Only his first attempt at recruitment doesn’t seem to be working out too well… Marcia Meara has a very natural, easy writing style and always injects heartfelt emotions into her books. Jake, Dodger and Azrael are well defined, strong and engaging characters, can’t wait to catch up with them. A delightful story.
The Poisoned Rock ~ Robert Daws
The second instalment of the The Rock Murder Mysteries finds Detective Sergeant Tamara Sullivan and Chief Inspector Gus Broderick involved in a tangled investigation when a film crew arrive on Gibraltar. Queen of Diamonds is a movie being filmed in Gibraltar Town based on the exploits of an alleged female spy operating in Gibraltar during World War II. Great writing along with a fast moving, skilful plot line, clearly defined, engaging characters and realistic dialogue combine to deliver an excellent read. As in the first book, the setting is fabulous and shows the author’s love and knowledge of the area. The continued working and friendly relationship building between Tamara and Gus adds to the realism, as does Gus’ bond with his family.
An Acre of Fools ~ Aden James (audiobook)
An Acre of Fools is Aden James’ powerful and haunting portrayal of a father’s unwavering love and hope in the face of his daughter’s descent into drug addition – until it becomes too much to bear, causing him to renounce everything he thought he believed in. A character driven story which unfolds with much drama and unpredictability as the wedge between family members is driven ever deeper. The fluctuating emotions were felt deeply – from hope and joy to the depths of despair. I could understand Mimi and Gracie’s disappointment with, and withdrawal from Austin as she becomes ever more calculating, abusive and uncaring of the hurt and anguish she’s causing. They never stop loving her but their emotions are conflicted, unable to accept or comprehend the life she has chosen, they feel helpless, unable to bring her back. Austin doesn’t want and won’t accept practical help, only money.
Sealskin ~ Su Bristow (audiobook)
Based on the selkie myths, this is a wonderfully original debut novel. An extraordinary tale with dark undercurrents, it’s about the power of love, magic, forgiveness and conversely violence, loss and atonement. It explores the meaning of community, the story giving the impression of being set in times gone by, which combined with the complexities of living in a small fishing village, intensifies the atmosphere. When life could be extremely harsh, villagers didn’t stray far from home and weather and sea dictated their way of life. Despite beginning with an act of violence (according to legend if a selkie’s skin is taken and hidden from her, she is in the man’s power and forced to become his wife) this is a beautiful, captivating and haunting book which was an (emotional) pleasure to listen to. Su Bristow’s writing is superb and captured my imagination from the start. It’s a book I won’t forget in a hurry.
A Shiny Coin for Carol Prentice ~ Mark Barry
This is the totally unpredictable and powerful story of a dramatic revenge planned down to the last detail. As more of the story is revealed, the more intriguing it becomes. How does Toby fit into Carol’s story and why is he so antagonistic? The disclosure, and learning the meaning behind the shiny coin, is appalling. The writing is real, gritty and sometimes violent, but always eminently readable. Engaging characters are vividly portrayed and display a realistic range of emotions and reactions. The narrative is written informally in the first person from Carol’s point of view, giving a comprehensive insight into her psyche, and how deeply past events impacted on her.
Lindisfarne (Project Renova 2) ~ Terry Tyler
In the second of the Project Renova Trilogy Vicky, Lottie and their group arrive safely on Lindisfarne, after leaving the house they had called home for last five months. They find a small community already there, ready to welcome newcomers. Although their way of life sounds and feels workable initially, the harmony doesn’t last. Human nature never changes, despite everything they have been through. Imaginative and extremely well written, this is a compelling follow up to Tipping Point. There are totally unexpected twists and new threads added which deepen the plot further. I can’t imagine where the story is going but I’m so looking forward to the final part. The cover is amazing, I love the dark, threatening feel and the almost abstract depiction of the Abbey ruins. I love Terry Tyler’s writing style. Each chapter comes from a particular character’s point of view, giving the best insight into each of their thoughts, personalities and reactions to those around them, coming from their own distinct voices.
Afterlife ~ Marcus Sakey
Having listened to Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance saga and loved it I jumped at the chance to read Afterlife when it was offered. It’s a fast moving, well written and masterful plot, which explores a very different take on the afterlife. The concept is incredible, as is the convincing world building and the battle between good and evil, the strong and the weak in such a novel setting. Running through it all is a believable bond between two people that transcends death. Descriptions of ‘the echo’ have a definite post apocalyptic feel which adds to the atmosphere and the combination of genres, which include supernatural, romance and thriller with a touch of science fiction. Teeming with tension, drama and suspense, I didn’t want the story to end although an excellent conclusion rounds it all out nicely.
The Quiet Child ~ John Burley (audiobook)
The Quiet Child has had a mention in my recommended three on damppebbles, but as it was already down as one of my favourite books of the year I’m keeping it in the list. This is a haunting and tense mystery, alternating between the boys’ captivity and the desperation of the hunt to find them. The contrast between police investigations then and now is huge, you forget and take for granted just how much things have moved on. Back then even tracing a phone call required considerable time and effort. With lots of vivid imagery and detailing, the narrative moves along relentlessly with blindsiding twists. Set in 1950s California, the McCray family live in the small town of Cottonwood. Kate McCray was born and bred there and when she married Michael McCray that’s where they set up home. Their two boys, Sean and Danny, ten and six respectively, complete their family. Michael adores his wife and boys but things aren’t going well. Danny has never spoken or made a sound, although he’s perfectly healthy.
A Hundred Tiny Threads ~ Judith Barrow
The prequel to the Pattern of Shadows series, A Hundred Tiny Threads explores the lives of Winifred Duffy and Bill Howarth up to the beginning of their lives together. Winifred lives with her mother, the very unpleasant Ethel, and her much nicer and long suffering father, and works in the family’s grocery shop. Winifred is an innocent, leading a very sheltered life ruled by her mother. Until the day Honora O’Reilly enters her life with her independence and talk of a better life for women, persuading Winifred to join the Suffragette movement. That, and meeting Conal, Honora’s brother, changed Winifred’s life in ways she could never have envisioned. It’s an incredibly well crafted story and gives a compelling insight into life in the early part of the last century, the obviously well researched historical aspects are fascinating.
Ghost Variations ~ Jessica Duchen
Ghost Variations is created from real people and true events which occurred during their lives; history dramatised into a rich and enchanting narrative. There are several subjects in this intriguing story which give pause for thought, not least the restrictions placed on women; the choice between career or family and the fact women were not allowed to attend certain of the better institutes of learning. The impending Nazi threat and the resulting fascism and growing prejudice against Jews is represented in all its horror. At its heart a touching, sensitively told story creating a wonderful read. This is an extraordinary and vividly written story when, as the author says, the truth is stranger than fiction. That the concerto should come to light in such a fashion is incredible. Jelly is finding the changes, within herself and the distant rumblings in Europe, difficult to come to terms with. How can there be another war, and so soon? Finding the concerto becomes Jelly’s quest and her lifeline.
The Constant Soldier ~ William Ryan
It’s 1944 and Paul Brandt, a German soldier, horrifically wounded and returning from the front, is on a hospital train bound for recuperation, convalescence and finally, home and his father. The village he had left years before, and the people, were not the same. By the same token, neither was Paul. His experiences have left him demoralised and guilt ridden.This is an incredibly atmospheric and emotive narrative, given the difficult subject matter. The book is based on and inspired by true events, which lend a haunting and poignant authenticity, with a deep awareness and insight into the characters – the arrogant, the disillusioned, the brave, the haunted and the brutal. Extremely thought provoking and encompassing a myriad of emotions, I was swept along by the story, the short chapters encouraging me to keep turning the pages.
The Lies Within (DI Will Jackman #3) ~ Jane Isaac
Grace Daniels, mother and grandmother, is on trial for murder. The story begins on the first day with a forceful opening of the prosecution’s case. ‘Be under no illusions by her smart clothes, her kind face and eloquent manner… This woman is guilty of murder…’ I was hooked immediately, and having read and enjoyed the first two books in the series I was sure this would be another gripping instalment.This series just keeps getting better. Jane Isaac has created a well constructed, compelling plot with a psychological thread; a likeable, well developed and believable, non-clichéd personality in Will Jackman and a storyline that’s part police procedural, part courtroom drama with a deeply emotional family trauma at its heart. The reveal was a complete surprise but looking back the clues were there amongst all the red herrings. I was too engrossed to catch them – that’s my excuse anyway. It’s an extremely well written story, the procedural, courtroom detailing and storytelling ability are all excellent.
The Lighterman (Charles Holborn #3) ~ Simon Michael
The atmosphere of the 1960s is skilfully and evocatively portrayed. I had no idea what a Lighterman was and found the insights into their role on the River Thames, and how that aspect was woven into the story, fascinating and adds much to the characters of Charles and Izzy, both of whom are convincing, well drawn and engaging in their different ways. Not having read the first two books I was a little concerned, but happily there was enough back information woven into the story so that I didn’t feel confused at all or unable to follow the plot. Charles and Izzy’s relationship and the court case are at the heart of the story. The courtroom scenes are depicted wonderfully, with tension and drama. Awareness of the author’s background and knowledge adds immeasurably to the story’s credibility. An engrossing read, well crafted and with a great twist.
Parallel Lies ~ Georgia Rose
Madeleine is a great character. Sympathetic and well defined and we can tell almost immediately she is warm-hearted by her reluctance to deliberately hurt others’ feelings and her concern for Kourtney. I enjoyed how Georgia Rose reveals Madeleine’s past gradually, developing her from someone basically living a lie, although it becomes easy to understand why she chose to live as she did, to an altogether stronger person. Parallel Lies is very well written, measured and steady to begin with in keeping with village life, with suspense and tension building progressively as the story unfolds. There’s a message here too, about how early circumstances shape a person’s life, in different ways, and how important the formative years are. Kourtney was determined to rise above the disadvantages, whereas Madeleine didn’t really have a chance. An excellent read.
Wonders & Wickedness (The Victorian Detectives #5) ~ Carol Hedges
Detective Inspector Leo Stride and Detective Sergeant Jack Cully are back, investigating several seemingly unconnected and complex storylines in their own inimitable fashion. Carol Hedges is adept at creating a comprehensive and evocative flavour of Victorian London and often dire circumstances of the poorer classes. The story is peopled with well-rounded and wonderfully named characters, all of whom are compelling, tragic, wicked and amusing in their own right. An important part of the narrative is London, a character in its own right. On one hand we have the great thoroughfares, parks and exclusive residential areas, contrasting strongly with the seedy, dark alleys, beggars, street children and slums of the less fortunate, described in vivid and atmospheric detail.
Irex ~ Carl Rackman
The story is based in history, the ship, a couple of the main crew members, reason for the wreck and the attempts at rescue, are all fact. Carl Rackman has woven an incredibly imaginative and compelling tale around that tragic event. The events on board the Irex unfold alongside the ever more complicated and undermined investigation, through alternate chapters. The mood in both parts of the narrative, but especially so aboard the storm-tossed ship, is convincing and portrayed extremely well. Undercurrents of unease and ill feeling steadily intensify the suspense and tension. I enjoyed the writing and the distinctive characterisations. Will Hutton is a sympathetic character, and who could have guessed the terrible secret of one of the passengers. I liked the investigators more and more as the story progressed, particularly the irrepressible news reporter.
The Silent Kookaburra ~ Liza Perrat
Written extremely well with wonderful, distinct characterisations and incredible imagery, this is a poignant story driven by cause and effect, the characters’ reactions completely convincing. Dealing with sensitive subjects, abuse, post natal depression and grooming amongst others, it’s sometimes difficult to see things through Tanya’s eyes. There’s so much she doesn’t yet understand or isn’t able to express but the reader can see where certain situations are heading, sharpening the suspense and the sense of danger, while dread of the likely end result builds. It wasn’t hard to become immersed in the story, the sense of time and place is intense and the mindset and attitudes along with dialogue are completely believable. Liza Perrat’s descriptive, assured prose and story telling skills make this a compelling and evocative read.
Fur Coat & No Knickers ~ Adrienne Vaughan
Fur Coat & No Knickers is a varied collection of short stories and poems encompassing a wide range of differing emotions, and giving a glimpse into people’s lives. Adrienne Vaughan manages, with concise and in depth prose, to reach the heart of each character and create well crafted and multi layered storylines in just a few pages. The characters are relatable and so very well drawn, in realistic situations, some of which must happen all the time. All the stories very cleverly incorporate an individual twist and/or message, some include flashes of humour and each one explores the distinct nuances of human nature and behaviour. And sandwiched in between are a delightful selection of poems.