I read more books in 2015 than I ever have in one year before – 201 books and they weren’t shorties either. As usual, they comprised historical fiction, science fiction and a few thriller titles, but 2015 stood out because it was the year in which I got back my crime fiction reading bug, something I’d lost about 25 years ago. Strange that. I can’t explain it. As one of the judges of the HWA Debut Crown Award for 2015, I had the honour of reading a whole bunch of historical fiction novels which aren’t included in the year’s tally – many congratulations to Ben Fergusson for his winning novel The Spring of Kasper Meier. The quality of the novels I read in 2015 was extremely high, although I was harder to please. I kept to my Resolution of dropping books that hadn’t won me over by the magic 100 page mark and there were more Did Not Finishers than ever before. There were also a fair few books, as always, that I didn’t read but wish that I had. Chief among these was The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley. But it, and others, too, are not going anywhere. I will get there in the end.
I am so grateful to all of the publicists who have sent books my way over the last year – I am indebted to you and I am so happy to have met so many of you over the last twelve months. I must also thank every author who has given me so much pleasure over the last year with their wonderful gift of stories. And to everyone who has taken the time to read a review, thank you. I can’t think of anything better to do with my time than share a love of good books.
So, on with the list of favourite titles for 2015. These are, as usual, divided by genre and are in no particular order, although at the end of each category there is a Favourite favourite.
2015 was an outstanding year for outstanding science fiction. Choosing ten favourites is no easy task but here they are. Click on the cover image and you’ll be taken to the review.
Seveneves is the first Neal Stephenson book I’ve read. I was attracted to it by its themes and promise of hard science fiction. I love SF brickbooks and Seveneves proved irresistible. For me, the first two thirds of this novel is nigh on perfect science fiction. If you were to give me a checklist of what I wanted from SF then this would tick most of the boxes. The plot seemed made for me – end of the world, space stations and space ships, heroism, weakness, action scenes that take the breath away and ideas and visions that make the jaw drop. This had it all. This is a saga to lose oneself in. It is rich, layered, alive. Its detail is absolutely fascinating and complements perfectly the scenes of high drama. The meticulously presented ordeal of surviving day by day on the Ark contrasts with the later section’s elaborately developed and grand view of mankind’s future. Seveneves is a triumph – I cannot praise it enough.
I didn’t love Red Rising as much as most did. For me, it was war games, and very nasty ones too, for adolescents. It was far too similar to The Hunger Games and I tired of the relentless violence. But I knew that Golden Son would be the book for me. Darrow is now freed of the Academy just as the series is freed of these familiar YA dystopian themes. Golden Son soars, free of the Academy, Mars and of our preconceptions. Darrow has become a leader of men and women. His speeches inspire, his actions impress and devastate, while his private grief wipes us out. The story is told in the first person, by Darrow himself, and the result is an extraordinary, powerful journey. As I’ve said already, it is exhausting, intense, astonishing.
Without doubt, Planetfall is one of the finest novels I’ve read this year. It’s one of those books that defies genre and demonstrates all that is wonderful and important about science fiction. It is an immensely rewarding, powerfully emotional read. The flashbacks to Earth provide a memorable contrast to this new life under different heavens. The society is evolving but at what cost? There is an Eden feel to the colony, a religion built around Planetfall and the Pathfinder, science and faith working together, but, despite the truly strange and enigmatic alien structure and the mystery of its call to humanity, Planetfall is at heart a novel about the human condition and the struggle of one woman to find her way through life when circumstances call her to account. I cannot praise this book enough and I urge you to read it.
Comparisons have been made to Firefly and I can see why. This is indeed the most Firefly-y of space operas that I’ve read but it’s no copy or derivative. As you read it you might think once or twice of people or moments aboard Firefly, but Becky Chambers takes us to whole new worlds and the novel format – this is not a short book – means that she has the time to explore. But in one way more than others does it resemble Firefly – its fabulous spirit of adventure that opens its arms to all that is different and wondrous in a dangerous but thoroughly fascinating universe. Small Angry Planet is one of the most enjoyable SF novels I have ever read and I’ve read such a lot. I read it in its independently-published days, ahead of its big release this year by Hodder & Stoughton and I am so pleased to see it reborn for a wider readership, to see it met with such affection and pleasure. I’ve not met anyone who hasn’t been entranced by this wonderful book. Do read it!
Luna is an extraordinary novel, its drama almost entirely dictated by the quality of its characterisation. We are presented with a cast of many, most drawn from the five Dragon families, and every one of them, however brief their time on the page, is given a distinct and important place in the story. The families are connected through the most complicated relationships – it is common to have more than one spouse or several lovers, of either sex, these unions pulling together families with deep-rooted suspicion, even hatred, of the other. Children become bargaining tools, beauty is a weapon, power is everything. Ian McDonald uses new language to describe relationships – all explained in the useful glossary. Luna is a society that has evolved in ways unfamiliar to us. While technology might be more sophisticated in many aspects, its relationships (personal and business) are complicated but also becoming increasingly primitive and raw. In law cases, a verdict can be decided by battling champions slicing each other apart, children of rival houses compete by racing naked and unprotected across the Moon’s deadly surface. The cost of survival is so high on Luna, it has changed society.
There is so much going on throughout this novel that it becomes the most exhilarating read. It contains the perfect mix of action and mystery, the present haunted by the past, an uncertain future ahead, with who knows what watching. There is a sense that mankind is on trial and not doing too well. But even the characters we expect to dislike the most are not easily dismissed. We are shown their past, the origins of what they have become. In addition to the human component, the glimpses of aliens, including the Raothri, are hugely intriguing and the novel more than satisfied my thing for spaceships. I sense that there is much more to come from this universe and what we will be given will be grand. There are tantalising glimpses of potential futures, other worlds, alien species. I cannot wait to explore more of these worlds, there seems no limits to where we may be taken.
Nemesis Games is an action thriller of the highest order. We are spared nothing of the horrors unfolding on Earth, the terror of the battles in space between opposing forces. The authors take us into the very heart of it and it is breathlessly exciting. Every single time we move from perspective to perspective it’s difficult to leave that person behind but that feeling lasts for just a second or two as the heat of the new chapter’s action presses down on the reader. The Expanse novels are about to become a TV series and I can’t think of a series better suited for it. Every novel surprises and thrills me and Nemesis Games is no different. Fantastic action adventure with wonderfully-drawn characters, all facing the great mystery of the Expanse, not yet knowing whether the terms good or evil even apply to it. The protomolecule and Detective Miller get little mention in Nemesis Games but it is one of the great strengths of the series that this doesn’t matter at all. In this novel we have the repercussions of what has passed, how it has affected the Belt and the inner planets, as well as individuals such as Holden and his crew. It’s powerful stuff.
Aurora is a powerful novel about the path of human life, about its extraordinary resilience and its capacity for hope. Whether either of these proves reliable is another matter. Large questions are raised about the purpose and success of generation ships and the intention of those who build them. One thing is for sure – travel between solar systems takes an inconceivably long period of time and this novel, more than any I’ve read before, shows the stresses that this brings to bear on people who must think not only of themselves but also, and more importantly, of their descendants. Aurora is a captivating novel – beautifully written, packed with science and filled with wonder. The personalities are large, the vision is enormous. It is also very satisfying to read with an addictive plot. I enjoyed 2312 very much but I think that Aurora has taken everything that I loved about this earlier novel and made it even bigger, even better.
I realise that I’m not able to tell you the best bits about this fantastic, enormously rewarding book because that would be giving the game away and you really need to discover it for yourself – the second half of the novel comprises one jaw-dropping moment after another, building up to a marvellous cimax. This book gives me all that I want from science fiction – there are wonders and mysteries, booby-trapped planets, alien technology, awe-inspiring panoramas, space and spaceships – and elephants! And manipulating its way through the heart of it is surely one of the universe’s most dysfunctional, astonishing families, the Akinya. Having completed the trilogy I now want to return to its beginning and re-read. Alastair Reynolds is one of my very favourite authors, every book is a much-anticipated event, and with Poseidon’s Wake he shows yet again why that is. I loved every single page.
My favourite SF novel of the year was not a difficult decision to make – I adored this book and urge you all to read it:
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s worldbuilding is utterly superb. He creates a planet full of life so different to what we know. The complexity of animal society as presented here is extraordinary. The planet is beautiful but deadly and all the time we are aware of the poor humans in the sky above so in need of a safe harbour. As one race evolves and another becomes more desperate we can only hope that there comes a time when both can meet. The survival of the human species depends on it. Children of Time perfectly combines hard science fiction with something fantastical and grand. Life in space contrasts starkly with evolving life among the planet’s forests and in its seas, with chapters alternating between space and the planet. The role of Kern herself is also fascinating – madness, religion, hope and despair meet in Kern’s relationship with the inhabitants of the planet below but even the position of God isn’t stable. Adrian Tchaikovsky has created a fabulous novel, worthy of its extraordinary worlds. It is such a hard book to put down, it becomes a vital part of the reader’s day. I dreamt about it more than once. It is beautifully written, its imaginative scope is vast and its voice is powerful.
Honourable SF mentions…
Way Down Dark by J.P. Smythe
The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts
Touch by Claire North
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
Roboteer by Alex Lamb
The Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Again no particular order except for the last, here are my ten(ish) (all right, fifteen) favourite historical fiction titles of 2015.
Eagles at War, the tale of the infamous loss of Varus’s eagles in AD 9) reads like a grand epic of disaster, building up to its historical climax while maintaining the tension and drama throughout. When the ambush comes, it is spellbinding. Ben Kane knows what it’s like to march like a Roman soldier and his expertise and practical knowledge comes to the fore. He also knows the site of the battle and he paints its landscape vividly, bringing the past into the present. The battle scenes, which are absolutely astonishing, reminded me of when I watched The Deer Hunter as a teenager, giving me a similar sense of terror and expectation. This is quite a compliment because I haven’t read or seen anything from then until this which gave me that same pungent sense of the horror of war.
The Devil’s Assassin is the third Jack Lark adventure and I expected much from it. Its predecessor The Maharajah’s General is an absolute delight – combining the perfect mix of boy’s own adventure, romance, exotic landscapes and foreign courts as well as mystery and intrigue. But instead of trying to compete with this, Paul Fraser Collard does something rather different with The Devil’s Assassin. The novel is just as exciting, if not more so in places, and the locations are just as exotic and well-visualised, but everything has got that little bit darker. There is ‘romance’ but Jack’s relationship with Sarah Draper, a senior officer’s wife, is not sentimental. It has much more to do with trying to find light amongst the darkness of war, a distraction from the constant shadow of death waiting around the next corner. The Devil’s Assassin is a wonderful novel. It’s a lot of fun to read, almost deceptively so because it also gave me a great deal to think about. This isn’t a period of history I normally read about but Paul Fraser Collard is no ordinary writer – I love the way that he brings this period of British military and imperial history to life, in all its colour, aggression, inequality, violence and vitality.
The crowning glory of Scourge of Rome is undoubtedly the siege of Jerusalem. Douglas Jackson does not spare us. This is a horrendous episode in Roman history, made even worse by the desperation of the city’s defenders, themselves torn apart by conflict and hatred. While we spend much of the time observing events from the Roman side, we do venture inside the city walls and meet leading figures from Jerusalem’s warring factions. Everyone is fighting to capture the powerfully symbolic Temple, everyone is prepared to see it burn. Scourge of Rome is a thoroughly exhilarating and pulse-thumping read. Douglas Jackson is a fine writer, both of action and of character and both play vital roles here. This is Roman historical fiction at its very best.
Rome’s Lost Son is the sixth novel in Robert Fabbri’s outstanding depiction of the life, career and times of one of Rome’s most successful (depending on how you judge success) emperors. Despite the fact that the novel is a sequel to those that went before, continuing the stories of some of Rome’s most fascinating leading figures, Rome’s Lost Son could be easily read as a stand alone novel. There are some scenes in Rome’s Lost Son that would be hard to forget, several of them involving the imperial family. There is deep tragedy. It’s a truly terrifying portrait and the colour that it adds to this novel is intense, just as previous novels were lit by their portrayals of earlier mad emperors and their kin. Robert Fabbri is achieving great things with this series. He manages to surprise me with each novel, always finding an unusual perspective or taking me down a totally unexpected path. The character of Vespasian builds in each book and the fact that we know he will finally become emperor adds to the marvel of how he survived these extraordinary years. This is a wonderful series and Rome’s Lost Son is one of its best with a conclusion that is outstanding.
The King’s Assassin might be the seventh book in Angus Donald’s superb Outlaw series but it breaks into new territory, escaping the past, and does, I think, work very well as a stand alone novel. The story continues to be narrated by a much older Alan but even his circumstances are changing from previous novels. As for the younger Alan, this is a crisis time and he’s even prepared to risk his friendship with Robin to fight for a cause he believes in. Alan is a powerful knight in his own right now and it’s perhaps not a surprise that there should be increasing friction with the dominating, paternal Robin Hood. Alan still makes mistakes and it never gets any easier to watch him make them. Robin Hood remains a more mysterious figure, keeping his deeper thoughts to himself, even from his wife, but he is never less than fascinating. He and Alan are wonderful creations, of which Angus Donald must be very proud. The story is marked by surprises, shocks and twists. The mood is perceptibly darker, Robin and Alan are older and well aware of their own mortality. Difficult times face them both, as indeed it does the whole land.
Dictator is a beautifully-written novel, capturing so well the feel of a distant past that we can only imagine. Robert Harris does it for us. The city of Rome and, even more importantly, its people are alive on the page. Some of the most famous characters of Roman history become three-dimensional, with families, aspirations, a determined purpose. Cicero is caught in the middle of it all, sometimes controlling events but, more often than not, caught on their wave. He is always, though, a man to admire. He is brave and loyal, frustrated and proud, petulant and kind. Tiro is our eyes and, through them, Robert Harris allows us, through this marvellous trilogy which this book completes, to witness one of the most remarkable periods of history, taking us intimately into the lives of the people who shaped it.
The Taming of the Queen is a novel of words rather than action. At the outset I wondered how the quality could be maintained through a substantial novel covering several years in which Kateryn Parr (Henry VII’s sixth wife) did – or was allowed to do – relatively little. But it is done perfectly. The tension of Henry and Kateryn’s marriage never drops, the insight never dulls. There are glimpses into moments from history that we know – such as the sinking of the Mary Rose and Henry’s war with France – but for much of the time this is a drama contained within the walls of a palace, primarily in its bed chambers and its feasting halls. The novel is rich in the colour and flavours of a Tudor court – the exotic endless feasting, the extravagance of the clothes, the furnishings and the buildings themselves. There is a strong sense of theatre. Just when I think that I’ve read all that I could ever want about the Tudors, especially Henry VIII, a book like this comes along.
All of the novels in this series feature darker undertones, contrasting with the energetic action plots. This novel is no different. Roman slavery is here shown for the ugly word it is and although it’s dealt with in a non-lecturing way it’s a nonetheless powerful theme, not least because it makes Cassius, our hero, think very deeply about his relationship to his own slave Simo. The plot of The Emperor’s Silver is thoroughly entertaining with some exhilarating action sequences (especially involving aqueducts). The baddies are extremely horrible. But the book also provides a fascinating glimpse of life and religion within an eastern Roman town, its mix of local and centralised government, its military and its industry, with all of the greed, corruption – and sometimes idealism and good service – that this entails. It’s painful these days reading a novel that includes regular mention of Palmyra. This novel reminds us of the region’s Roman past and it is wonderful. I always look forward to this series every year and, yet again, Nick Brown has outdone himself. As for that ending…!
The setting, location and prose might be wonderful but so too are the plot and characters. The Last Confession has a great plot that I would argue even outdoes the plot of Marshalsea. Now that we know Tom better the storyline is much less about him, crucial though he is to its development. This is a marvellously tangled web of secrets and lies and murder and sin. If only Tom would rise above it all. If only he hadn’t become involved in the first place. But we know Thomas Hawkins very well, he’s so beautifully drawn after all, and we know he can’t help himself. I’m not a big reader of historical fiction set during the Georgian period. It’s never been a time that interested me but Antonia Hodgson challenges all of that. Not only does she make me feel thoroughly immersed in the period but she also makes me want to find out more about it. She is to be congratulated for The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. The Devil in the Marshalsea is a superb novel that all fans of historical fiction should read and enjoy but The Last Confession is even better! It is a tremendous achievement. Antonia Hodgson is a fine writer indeed and will become, I sense, an increasingly significant one.
The Last Pilot is Benjamin Johncock’s debut novel. It is simply wonderful – an extraordinary achievement. Its portrait of this little (and extremely unusual) part of America from the late 1940s until the 1960s feels completely authentic and real – quite a feat for a debut British author. Its prose is beautiful, capturing the excitement of the space race every bit as much as the constrained emotions of Jim and Grace, blending history and fiction seamlessly. Its treatment of dialogue is intriguing. I thought that I’d find the lack of speechmarks distracting but it worked extremely well. It adds an intimacy to the narrative which is quite unusual and very effective. This is a truly fascinating period in recent American history and Benjamin Johncock dramatises so well the cost of the great human endeavour that culminated in 1969’s Moon landing, a cost that extended beyond the famous and terrible accidents of the space race into the private lives of the daredevil pilot astronauts and their brave, resilient wives. I loved every page of this marvellous book, becoming hooked instantly. I won’t forget Jim, Grace and Florence.
Just like its predecessor Life After Life, A God in Ruins is a novel about war. Teddy’s experiences as a pilot of Halifax bombers colours his entire life, affecting every relationship, and we are immersed in the depths of pain and turmoil that hide in Teddy’s heart. I’m not going to tell you here about what happens to Teddy, or about any of the people who move through this novel and Teddy’s life – each of them will grab hold of you, your feelings towards them will change, you will care deeply, maybe even dislike one or two of them intensely. But I will say that one of the reasons that I loved this book so much is because it made me think deeply about how little we might really know about those we love, how rewarded we would be if we dug a little, even if it also hurt a bit. The themes here are huge – life can be short; it is important to live that life fully and well. At the heart of this remarkable, wonderful book is Teddy – I’m struggling to think of any other character in a novel I’ve felt so drawn to. Prepare to laugh and cry – and possibly cry an awful lot – as you get to know this man as he lives through his life, teaching us as he goes about what the years have taught him about home, love, family, war, nature, duty and death. I am overwhelmed.
This is a beautifully written book that captures perfectly the language and rituals of Queen Anne’s age. It makes good use of original sources but it also recreates so well the wit and extravagance of the times. The chapter headings are wonderful and much of the language is amusing and often satirical. It is addictive to read, becoming more and more so as we become fully immersed in Anne’s world. Anne is a really rather unusual heroine. She is increasingly fat, stricken with gout, obsessed by food but it becomes clear that much of this is an escape mechanism because she is surrounded by a chaos that the elaborate rituals of the court cannot hide. Her family is enormously dysfunctional, Anne’s relationship with her parents is unconventional to say the least and William and Mary are hardly ‘normal’. My overall feeling for this novel was one of intense enjoyment. A Want of Kindness is a thoroughly immersive and sensitive read, witty and insightful, marrying historical fact and interpretation perfectly. A novel of the year for me, without doubt.
Marston Moor is the sixth in Michael Arnold’s Civil War Chronicles but it is very different to any of its preceding novels. While I would suggest that you read the other novels first – if only because they’re fantastic and the finest novels on the English Civil War you could read – this latest book does work well as a stand alone. Much of the back history, especially that surrounding the relationship between the hero Stryker and Lisette, the Queen’s spy, is secondary to the events of these few summer weeks. The focus in Marston Moor is very tight, the mood is far more grim, Stryker is as much a witness of war as he is a participant, the story moves beyond his viewpoint. The story of the Battle of Marston Moor on 2 July 1644 is very much the subject of the novel, anything else is secondary. The battle is extraordinarily evoked – bloody, noisy, visceral, stinking, utterly terrifying. There is no adventure to be found here, only men desperate to survive. It is ugly and deadly. A magnificent novel.
Bloodline is historical storytelling at its finest – the Wars of the Roses are brought out from the past and made fresh because they are presented as raw, violent and deeply emotional. This extraordinary family is wiping itself out at the most horrendous cost for the people of England. We are not spared the utter outrage of these battles. While nobles are executed – no hostages were taken by these vengeful princes – the commonman is slaughtered in his thousands. The characters are sensitively drawn, combining knightly flamboyance, youthful energy and sad, depressed rage. Edward IV stands head and shoulders above the others, a giant in size and action, while Henry VI appears as some pitiful, little figure, well-meaning but so ill-suited to wear his crown. Edward is no perfect warrior, however. He is easily led and flattered. He needs to be contained. Margaret continues to challenge our sympathies while Warwick manages to raise them. Warwick is a wonderful creation. You can almost see his thought processes as he tries to deal with his own agenda while coping with his personal grief and the wavering of a capricious young king. There is a considerable amount of heart in Bloodline. It’s an exciting read – these are the most incredible times, after all – but it’s enriched by insight and sensitivity. There is a melancholy air to it but that seems especially appropriate to its themes. Conn Iggulden is such a fine writer, well-skilled at immersing his reader in the past and making it relevant. I’ve read most of Conn Iggulden’s novels over the years and, with no doubt at all, I can declare Bloodline my favourite.
As with science fiction, my favourite historical fiction of the novel was a clear choice from the moment I closed its pages:
Melvyn Bragg’s prose in Now is the Time is wondrous. I can’t praise it enough – I don’t think I’ve read anything else this year that matches it and that’s not lightly said. It isn’t easy to explain but for me the narrative and its phrasing manages to be both modern and medieval. There is also almost a hindsight in parts of the novel, colouring its language, making the events seem even more momentous and significant. Its sense of history is strong and vital but so too is its insight into character and injustice, something that is timeless. Medieval London is vividly brought to life but Now is the Time most excels in its dialogue, in its characters’ reflections and contemplations. History comes alive in Now is the Time. Now is indeed the time – the events of the past are powerfully shown to have relevance to our own world. At times it reads like a call to arms while at other times it reminds us of the almost inevitable failure of such an enterprise. It is compassionate and gentle. There is idealism co-existing alongside melancholy, and cruelty feeding upon hope. Now is the Time didn’t just mesmerise me with its utterly wonderful writing it also made me think and I am enormously grateful to have read it. This book exemplifies the relevance of historical fiction, going beyond the confines of genre.
Cleopatra’s Shadows by Emily Holleman
Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans
The Sword of Attila by David Gibbins
Master of War: Defiant Unto Death by David Gilman
The Silent Hours by Cesca Major
Mathew’s Tale by Quentin Jardine
The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland
Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams
Thunder of the Gods by Anthony Riches
If You Go Away by Adele Parks
Thrillers and crime fiction
It was almost impossible to whittle this category down but here it is, with my favourite at the end.
This year I read my first Stuart MacBride novel – The Missing and the Dead. I was instantly hooked and have since read three more and bought up the entire Logan series. I adore it. The success of the Logan novels is a result of far more than the excellent plots and the novels’ formidable, expert structures. The series is addictive and habit-forming largely because of the fantastic characters, their interaction, and the writing, which manages to shock while also making the reader, at least this one, laugh out loud, frequently. This style has developed over the books and a good reason for this is probably the increasingly dominant presence of Logan’s DCI, Roberta Steel. Steel is, with no doubt at all, an utterly appalling woman. There’s barely a moment when she’s not having a good old scratch, hurling abuse, flirting or trying to get out of something by making Logan do it instead. She is priceless, irrepressible, and the banter between Steel and Logan is thoroughly entertaining. It is possibly true that at times she becomes too much and the banter takes over, especially in the later books, but I can forgive her an awful lot. She must be such fun to write. The relationship between Logan and Steel dominates the later books in a way that makes the earliest books very different. When I started falling for the Logan series I heard the term ‘Tartan Noir’ for the first time. It is most definitely true that Stuart MacBride is a master of it but the appeal of this series goes far beyond labels. Brilliantly written, fantastically plotted and structured, and full of life, humour, bleakness and death, they offer me the perfect promise for those long wintery reading nights.
In No Other Darkness we meet Marnie Rome and her DS Noah Jake for the second time and it’s very good to be back with them. It is a relief after the traumatic start to spend time with the order and method of Marnie’s investigation, to watch out for clues and lies. I won’t reveal where they lead us as this is a plot that you must watch unwind for yourself. Its ending, though, when it comes, is nigh on perfect.. Sarah Hilary is such a good writer, the dialogue is particularly strong and the third person narrative mixes well with the intermittent first person memories from the past that puzzle and tantalise as the novel goes on. No Other Darkness takes us, and DI Marnie Rome, to some dark places but there’s a real warmth and care in Sarah Hilary’s handling of these difficult themes. It is also extremely difficult to put down. I thought this would be good and I wasn’t disappointed. What a fabulous novel.
Nina and Eddie are back! This adventure is an exhilarating ride. The pages race through the fingers as we travel around the world, visiting some archaeological sites and museums that never quite know what hit them. Andy McDermott is great at presenting car/boat/plane chases and we get a host of them here. The extreme action is matched by the humour. Few people can pun like Eddie can pun, and few people could put up with it as well as Nina can. But alongside the humour there is also darkness and I love this side to the Nina and Eddie series. People we’re attached to can die, there are no guarantees that everything will work out, and Nina and Eddie are not invincible. You can count on a few tears being shed in one of these novels and The Revelation Code is no exception. This is such a strong series and I can never get enough of it. The Revelation Code is a fine addition to it, combining a great plot and mystery with a new phase in Eddie and Nina’s relationship. I cannot wait to see what happens next. Nothing will be the same again.
The opening scene in Hidden is shocking and abrupt. It introduces us to people who have been dead for just minutes, people that we will get to know and care for as we travel back through the events of the preceding week. We can be in doubt how the novel will finish. We see its bloody denouement on the very first page but when we finally reach these scenes again at the novel’s end we are all much wiser. Because we know what’s coming and because the chapter headings tell us how many days we have left before the shooting the tension builds like a ticking bomb. Hidden is Emma’s second novel and it follows an excellent debut, Falling. I enjoyed Falling very much indeed but I think Hidden is even better. It’s tense, tight and disturbing (in a good way) and clearly written by an author who knows what she’s writing about. Its structure is particularly clever and the author is to be congratulated on controlling it so well. There are a fair few psychological thrillers out there at the moment but this one most definitely deserves your attention.
I cannot praise Death in the Rainy Season enough. It’s difficult to know what to commend the most – the fascinatingly intricate and sensitive mystery, the rich array of personalities that our detective Morel must get to know, whose lives he must turn upside down, or the complex and mesmerising character of Serge Morel himself. This thoughtful and clever man carries so much on his shoulder, he is humane and kind, and he is calmly ruthless in his determination to uncover the truth from among all these secrets. And then there is Cambodia itself. The character of Cambodia contributes to making this one of the most atmospheric mysteries that I have read for months. It is beautiful, steamy, hot and mysterious. But there is also great darkness in its recent past. Morel uses what little spare time he has in Phnom Penh to renew ties with his mother’s family and it is a painful affair. Morel must learn about the crimes committed against his own family on Pol Pot’s Killing Fields just as he must also become aware how this brutality affected Savit, the local police officer he finds so hard to work with, as well as its impact on the country itself. Some dark themes are explored in Death in the Rainy Season, not all of them belonging to the past, and they cast a shadow over the lives of everyone in this novel. More and more is revealed about past and present as the novel unravels its secrets. Finally, there is Anna Jaquiery’s writing, which is clear, evocative and beautiful. Characters, setting and mystery are deftly brought to life around us. I found Death in the Rainy Season to be a most compelling and immersive read, hard to put down and hard not to think about.
I Know Who Did It is, without doubt, one of the most thought-provoking, complex and satisfying crime novels I’ve read. It is far more than a straightforward whodunnit, in many ways that’s almost secondary. The focus throughout is on the minds of these three detectives, especially Groves and Nelson, as they endeavour to cope with the worst that life has thrown at them, trying to deal with the present, and find resolution, each in their different ways. As Steve Mosby lets us in to the minds of Groves and Nelson, it is impossible not to care for both men but particularly for David Groves as he begins to find clues to his son’s disappearance all those years ago. There’s nothing he can do but follow where he is led. The characterisation in I Know Who Did It is second to none and so too is its elaborate plotting. There are moments here of utter shock and I did actually gasp out loud at a couple of its fabulous twists. But while it’s gripping throughout, it’s also an emotional read and the novel becomes increasingly intense especially during its final third. I couldn’t put the novel down at this point. I was desperate to find out what happened.
Die Again is the eleventh Rizzoli and Isles novel by Tess Gerritsen. For me, though, it was my first. I was initially drawn to Die Again by its African theme and this certainly didn’t disappoint (I’ve spent time on safari but thank heavens I hadn’t read this first!). But there is much more to this book that made me not want to put it down. The characters of Jane and Maura are fabulous. They also mean that Die Again is not a dark novel, despite its crimes. The story itself is fantastic. I was glued to it. This is a highly addictive novel. I’m usually good at guessing who’s done what in a mystery but I was completely flummoxed by this one. I made lots of guesses, confident I’d worked it out, but I was foiled more than once. Millie is such an attractive character and her voice adds enormously to the novel, its narrative divided between Millie’s first person account and the third person telling of the Rizzoli and Isles case. Tess Gerritsen is clearly a master of her craft and I can understand why she has so many fans. She writes so well, her storytelling thriller-plotting talent backed up by her medical knowledge. Immediately after reading Die Again (an experience which involved staying up until well after 2am as I was unable to put it down), I bought two more in the series. I am hooked.
I am a huge Ben Hope fan and in 2015 I was spoiled with not one but two new Hope thrillers. The Martyr’s Curse was, by a slim margin, my favourite of the two and gives Ben Hope – and any new readers – a clean slate to begin afresh. I’m not going to say anything about the mystery here but it’s a corker. Suffice to say, the villain is fabulously nasty, the locations are vividly painted and the action scenes are adrenalin pumped. Arguably, The Martyr’s Curse is the most violent of the series. Stakes are extraordinarily high and there’s nothing that Ben Hope won’t do to stop the baddies in their tracks and some of it isn’t pleasant. There is a female lead and she plays a significant part in the novel as well as in helping Ben keep his cool. As things turned progressively nasty I was grateful for her presence, as no doubt were the baddies left scrambling in the dirt. It was no surprise to discover that The Martyr’s Curse is a thrilling adventure of the highest quality and it kept me on the edge of my seat from start to finish. It was fantastic to spend more time with Ben Hope, flawed and wonderful as he is, in this the finest of all his adventures.
Into the Fire combines two thoroughly satisfying and fascinating investigations, one in the mid 15th century and the other in the present day, moving deceptively easily between the two. The use of present tense is brilliantly deployed, making the past as immediate as the present, the characters equally alive and relevant. The stories are wonderful, the characters are believable and real, the relationships between them complex and surprising. The thriller element of the novel ensures that we have twists and shocks while its historical side transports us into a past world that we can taste and smell around us. The fact that much of the story, past and present, takes place in one city, Orléans, also serves to bring the two worlds of the story together while stressing the modern significance of Joan of Arc and the enigma that continues to surround this woman soldier, now a saint. At the novel’s heart, though, is the extraordinary young woman – the Maid, Joan of Arc – who emerges alive here out of the myth as I hoped she would, the noise of the battle contrasting with the quiet fervour of her determination, the devotion of her friendships, the loyalty of her men, the treachery of her lord, the brutal legality or otherwise of her interrogators, all set against the fire of the flames. Fire fuels both elements of this novel as the title suggests. It threatens both women, both worlds.
The following is my favourite thriller of the year – it is fantastic to see the beginning of a new series from Simon Toyne that is every bit as superb as the Sanctus trilogy, if not more so.
Simon Toyne is a fantastic storyteller. His thrillers depict imaginary places that feel vividly real. In the Sanctus novels, Ruin was a perfectly imagined Near Eastern city, a religious centre and tourist destination. Now, in Solomon Creed, we have Redemption, a small desert town, cut off from the present, alive with the spirit of the Wild West and populated by characters and mystery that do its striking setting and powerful atmosphere full justice. Events unfold in the twistiest of fashions, keeping this reader at least on the edge of their seat until well into the night. Solomon Creed is an enormously clever, exciting and dramatic thriller. Its shifting perspectives, voices moving from the past to the present, the shimmer between the known and the unknown, contribute to one of the most atmospheric reads that I have had in a long time. Solomon Creed himself is the epitome of the intriguing hero, a mystery as much to himself as he is to us.
Tenacity by J.S. Law
Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller
The Silent Room by Mari Hannah
Follow Me by Angela Clarke
The Bone Labyrinth by James Rollins
After the Fire by Jane Casey
The Life I Left Behind by Colette McBeth
In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward
Stasi Child by David Young
The Infidel Stain by M.J. Carter
Hunted by Paul Finch
The Ends of the Earth by Robert Goddard
The British Lion by Tony Schumacher
Burnt Paper Sky by Gilly Macmillan
I must also sing the praises of The Death House by Sarah Pinborough, a fine novel that seemed to defy all my attempts to classify it, and likewise The Way of Sorrows by Jon Steele – a truly outstanding conclusion to a wonderful trilogy. As for horror, without doubt my favourite of the year is Day Four by Sarah Lotz – utterly terrifying and brilliant.
2015 was a great reading year – it definitely had an edge on 2014 in my opinion. Here’s hoping that 2016 is every bit as rich and wonderful.
A whopper of a post! If you got to the end of it, thank you! And here’s wishing us all a happy, healthy and peaceful 2016!