I read a lot of books, across a wide range of genres. These are my favourites from 2020 – one for each of the 12 days of Christmas. A mixture of crime, literary, non-fiction, and contemporary novels. Something for everyone!
WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING by Delia Owens
Undoubtedly, my read of the year. The New York Times calls this “At once a murder mystery, a coming-of-age narrative and a celebration of nature.” It’s a well written story about a girl abandoned by her family in a marshy outpost of a North Carolina town in the 1950s. As she grows to adulthood – wild, intelligent, lonely – she interacts with the townsfolk in different ways, some pleasant, mostly not so. Most look down on her as ‘marsh trash’. The man who does take an interest, the former high school quarterback and town lothario, later ends up murdered. This is a contemporary novel that happens to include a crime. I found it a wonderful read, with terrific descriptions of the marsh and its wildlife, and a compelling mystery that takes centre-stage in the third act. There’s a reason the book has already sold 8 million copies around the world.
THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen
This book won the Pulitzer Prize and a hatful of other literary awards and you can see why. A satirical masterpiece, written with verve, flair, and extraordinary skill, the novel follows a Vietnamese double-agent forced to flee Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, only to discover that life in 1970s America is not quite what he has been led to believe. The book mercilessly slaughters both American and Vietnamese cultural icons, exposing the hypocrisy and lies that characterise that turbulent time in the history of these two nations. A landmark novel and a recommend for those who enjoy wicked historical satire.
PRAGUE FATALE by Philip Kerr
I am a recent convert to the Germany-set Bernie Gunther crime novels. This one takes place in 1942, as Nazi ideology makes its jackboots felt across the country. Gunther is brilliantly drawn, a cynical, hardboiled detective, part of the German machine, morally compromised, yet at the same time contemptuous of its hateful rhetoric and actions. In Prague Fatale he is coerced into acting as protector for one of the most evil of all Nazis: Reinhard Heydrich, a principal architect of the Holocaust. Murder ensues at a closed base for German officers in Prague and Bernie must find the culprit.
QUEENIE by Candice Carty-Williams
This hugely successful debut won book of the year at the British Book of the Year Awards. Full of wit, contemporary humour, and a no holds barred attitude that infuses every page, I found this an exhilarating read. Queenie is a wonderfully drawn character, a mass of contradictions, at once loud, vulnerable, committed, flaky, tender, ridiculous, and insightful. The world through Queenie’s eyes is well worth a look.
DOMINION by Tom Holland
This non-fiction work by noted historian Holland applies itself to the question of how Christianity came about and how it then grew to become so influential. I found this a fascinating read, full of intriguing historical anecdotes, vividly depicted characters, and a narrative that brought to life in new and interesting ways some of the great stories of Christianity that many of us have imbibed. All told in Holland’s fluid, engaging and often provocative style.
THE CURATOR by M.W. Craven
The Curator is the latest entry in this dark crime series, powered by its two contrasting but perfectly cast police protagonists: the burly no nonsense supergrouch Washington Poe, and the genius but socially awkward young Tilly Bradshaw. On the trail of another serial killer, they are confronted by a murderous psychopath with a penchant for leaving body parts in odd places – together with a strange clue. The book won multiple awards this year and it is easy to see why.
THE SECOND SLEEP by Robert Harris
Harris has been one of my favourite authors ever since his brilliant debut Fatherland, a crime novel set in an alternate future where Hitler survived and the Third Reich persisted. Since then he has become a household name. In The Second Sleep he again excels, both in fashioning a gripping plot that unwinds slowly and the measured quality of his writing. It is difficult to say too much without giving essential plot elements/twists away, but the book begins in 1468 with a young monk arriving in a small English village to investigate the death of a priest. It soon turns out the priest in question may have been flirting with heresy. Be warned: this isn’t really a crime novel.
THE CACTUS by Sarah Hayward
The book follows a 45-year-old single woman with a prickly persona and a unique outlook on life. She becomes embroiled in a legal battle with her brother over her mother’s will whilst trying to manage an unexpected pregnancy. The protagonist reminds me of another quirky character – Eleanor Oliphant – star of the recent bestseller Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. If you enjoyed that you’ll probably enjoy this, though there are perhaps fewer outright laughs here.
DEATH IN THE EAST by Abir Mukherjee
The fourth outing in the captain Sam Wyndham and Surrender ‘Surrender-Not’ Banerjee series sees Sam detoxing from his opium addiction in an ashram in the north-eastern state of Assam. The narrative alternates between 1922 India and 1905 London where a young Sam tracks the killer of an old flame. Seventeen years later a ghost from that past crosses his path in Assam. Mukherjee not only steeps us in the atmosphere of the Raj but also recreates a teeming early-nineteenth-century London, exploring issues of migration and xenophobia, matters all too relevant to our current moment.
HUMANS by Matt Haig
An intriguing contemporary read. An alien comes to Earth and takes over the body of an eminent British professor who has just made a mathematical discovery that will, apparently, have dire consequences for the cosmos. Our alien protagonist is tasked to erase any sign of the discovery and anyone who may know of it. But the more time he spends with these strange creatures called ‘humans’ the more he comes to understand what makes them so unique… Haig writes in a fluid way and keeps the pages turning with a blend of wit and quirky happenstance. The third act may be a little too preachy for some, but overall I found the book enjoyable.
FORCE OF NATURE by Jane Harper
I loved Harper’s debut The Dry, which became a megaseller and won numerous crime fiction awards around the world. This book again features Australian cop Aaron Falk, this time on the trail of a woman who goes missing in the Aussie wilderness after trekking out with four other women as part of a corporate bonding exercise. Is she alive? If not, who killed her? It was always going to be difficult for Harper to recreate the brilliance of her debut, but this book is pacey, well plotted, nicely written, and keeps the pages turning.
THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER by Nelson DeMille
An oldie but a goodie. For those of you who have seen the film the plot won’t come as a surprise. A brilliant young female officer – daughter of a general, no less – is found naked, strangled, and staked out on a rifle range at a southern US military base. Army CID officer Paul Brenner, accompanied by rape specialist Cynthia Sunhill, is called in to investigate. Nothing, of course, is quite as it seems. Nelson DeMille is a giant of the thriller genre, and a former army officer. His prose is sharp, his plotting meticulous, and he brings Brenner to life with a dry, laconic style that really appealed to me.
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My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here