The year is fast running away from me. I’d been determined to get my Book review of 2016 posted in good time before the bookshops closed for the holidays and then flu reared up its ugly head and levelled me with a thump. But now that I’m feeling almost human again – that is, human unless you ask me to speak as I have no voice whatsoever – I’m grabbing this chance to get the post out. In a few days I want to do another post giving my suggestions for books to look out for during 2017, particularly during the first half of the year. I’ve been lucky to have read a few already and to have a sizeable growing pile of them by my side and I think 2017 will be an even better year for those like me who enjoy nothing more than having their eyeballs glued to a book. In a manner of speaking.
In the past I’ve done top 10s or so of books by genre, resulting in a rather long list of thirty odd books. This year I thought I’d try something different and do a top list grouping all of the books together. As I write this, I’m still not absolutely certain how many there will be [turns out there are 17!]. I’ve read 203 books so far this year and it’s not easy whittling them down because I make a point of only reading good books. I’m so fortunate to be able to do that. So I’ve had to be brutal. No wonder this post has taken me so many days to write!
My reading tends to be focused between historical fiction, science fiction and some crime fiction or thrillers. I don’t read a huge amount of crime fiction – although adding them up it comes to a total of about 50 read, which isn’t too shabby – but the ones that I do read I tend to adore. I think that crime fiction has been especially strong this year, with some newish authors really growing into their characters and producing outstanding, gripping and memorable novels. The run of psychological thrillers continues and it’s true to say that this is a genre I can struggle with – I abandon a fair few unfinished. At its best this is a fantastic genre but it does risk repeating itself. I’m looking forward to seeing how it will develop in 2017. But I do hope that no more books are cursed with the tagline ‘with a twist you won’t see coming’.
As usual, and as mentioned, much of my reading during 2016 was divided between historical fiction and science fiction, the two genres that I love most of all and both gave me so much pleasure during 2016 – perfect escapism. While there were relatively few surprises in historical fiction in 2016, my favourite authors continued to reward me with fine additions to series that I have loved and followed for years. I can never express enough how grateful I am to these authors or to their publishers. To name but a few: Angus Donald, Douglas Jackson, Paul Fraser Collard, Giles Kristian, Conn Iggulden, Harry Sidebottom, Anthony Riches, Ben Kane, Robert Fabbri, Simon Scarrow, Ian Ross, David Wishart, Lindsey Davis, Toby Clements. These could quite easily form a top list of their own and so I want to give them special mention here. These books give me such pleasure and I am so grateful for every one of them. Each of these novelists plays such a key part in my reading year and so in 2017 I’ll be writing some spotlight posts on them as a thank you.
Michael Arnold was missing off the list this year but I’m so pleased to hear that Stryker will return in 2017. I’m also hoping for a new Manda (MC) Scott novel in 2017. It was also great to see Robyn Young make a return in 2016 with Sons of the Blood, the first in a new highly-anticipated series. Elizabeth Chadwick’s fine series on Eleanor of Aquitaine concluded this year in the marvellous The Autumn Throne.
There have been some noticeable trends in historical fiction this year – Victorian murder mysteries have not only been relatively numerous, they’ve also got me hooked. Secondly, I have read at least seven novels focused on the Wars of the Roses this year and I’ve reached the stage that I might not be able to read another for quite some time!
Science fiction, as in 2015, was outstanding in 2016 and transported me in wonder to numerous other worlds and times. 2016 hasn’t been an easy year (to put it mildly) and science fiction – and historical fiction – have been essential for getting me through it and SF has been especially kind to me. This year, thanks to Alastair Reynolds’ Beyond the Aquila Rift, I discovered the value and appeal of science fiction short stories. As a result, a whole new world has opened up for me. As with historical fiction, it’s been so difficult pruning my favourite science fiction reads down to just a handful. But if it were easy then it wouldn’t be worth doing.
There have been other books I’ve enjoyed this year that have fallen outside the usual genres and one I have to mention for the pure pleasure it provided – Mount! by Jilly Cooper – absolutely loved it! I must mention Scott Mariani as well. I’m a huge fan of his Ben Hope thrillers and this year he gave me two and they were fantastic (Star of Africa and The Devil’s Kingdom).
I’m grateful to all the kind publicists and publishers who repeatedly make my day by sending me their books to review and to the authors for writing them. And to you all for taking the time to read my reviews. Thank you.
Right! On with the my top (17) reads of 2016. The books aren’t in any particular order but the one at the end is my favourite. All of the books here were published in 2016.
In the Cold Dark Ground by Stuart MacBride
This might have been one of the first books I reviewed in 2016 but I never stopped loving it. ‘As always, Stuart MacBride perfectly combines the investigation of murders and other crimes with his portrayal of the men and women who pursue the criminals. There are goodies and baddies on both sides, all of whom are fascinating, whether they appear for just a few pages or come and go throughout. I love that these are substantial novels. They are immersive reads, they are funny (I only have to think of the ‘Sacred Wooden Stick of Crime-Scene Dominion) and so sad, gruesome and terrifying. Above all, they are fantastic and In the Cold Dark Ground is, in my opinion, the very finest of them all’. Full review.
Arkwright by Allen Steele
This ‘extraordinary, wonderful novel that combines an exploration of 20th-century science fiction with the fabulous story of how one writer set out to make science fiction fact, reaching for the stars, knowing it wasn’t achievable in his own lifetime but laying out a path to enable his descendants to do just that. Arkwright moves through the years and decades, through lives, through hopes, despair and aspirations, marriages and children, the Legion of Tomorrow advancing, until finally we are in a place every bit as brilliantly science fiction-y as we, or Nathan Arkwright, could possibly have hoped for… I cannot praise Arkwright enough. There is so much in it to discover. It’s accessible but sciencey and meticulous, it’s fast moving – I could not wait to see what would happen next. And it’s one of those science fiction novels that I wished were three times the length.’ Full review.
A Fever of the Blood by Oscar de Muriel
‘On New Year’s Day 1889, a patient escapes from a lunatic asylum in Edinburgh, leaving a nurse brutally murdered, gripped by a poison so severe that her contortions snapped her spine. The manhunt is given to local Detective Adolphus ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray and Inspector Ian Frey, who has been banished to Scotland from London and sees little hope of return… So begins a cat and mouse chase across Scotland and the north of England during one of the worst winters in living history. A Fever of the Blood has just the right amount of melodrama and witchery. The superstition is counteracted by a detective’s cynicism but there’s still enough to chill, particularly when the action takes us up into the snow-blasted moors and hills. The settings, both town and country, are wonderfully drawn and they are populated by a host of fascinating and strange characters. McGray and Frey are marvellous creations and Oscar de Muriel has put them within a story that’s worthy of them. I lapped it up, was constantly surprised by its twists and turns, and I am so looking forward to meeting the two of them again.’ Full review.
The Murder Road by Stephen Booth
‘When Mac Kelsey got his lorry wedged under a low country bridge, having been misdirected by his satnav, he might have thought that his delivery run of animal feed could get no worse. He would have been wrong. Afterwards, locals cross at being trapped either in or outside of this little hamlet, discover a mystery – the lorry is empty, the driver is gone, only a trail of blood to indicate he was ever there at all… I love Stephen Booth’s writing. The Peak District setting, the area around the town of New Mills in this case (a town that used to feature on long walks when I was a youngster) is so well evoked, capturing the beauty of this part of the world while also hinting that life there isn’t always easy. It’s the perfect location for murder, after all… I am mystified as to why this series has passed me by. It has everything I want from a crime series – great writing, atmospheric well-drawn locations, intriguing characters (both suspect and police) and a thoroughly satisfying mystery. I am now hooked.’ Full review.
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
‘Jason Dessen, his wife Dani and their 14-year-old son Charlie lead a contented life in their brownstone town house in Boston. Jason teaches physics to college kids while Dani, once an up-and-coming artist, is now a full-time mother raising their happy, kind and arty son. Thursday is Family Night but on this particular Thursday, against his better judgement, Jason leaves the family nest to pop out to a local bar to buy a good friend a drink to congratulate him for winning a major science award. Promising to return within the hour bearing ice cream, Jason sets out without a backward glance and falls into a nightmare… It takes more than a good premise to make me read a whole book in one go and Dark Matter fulfils entirely the promise of its opening chapters by delivering shock after shock, not just for Jason but also for us. As the title suggests, Blake Crouch takes us into the mindbending territory of quantum physics and, while there were times when I thought my brain might frazzle with overwork, the author makes every effort to make the non-physicist reader such as myself understand just enough. In fact, I really loved the visualisation and dramatisation of the physics. It works brilliantly well, terrifying and fascinating all at the same time… If I had to find fault it would be that I wanted much, much more – more pages, more of the ideas, more of the endless possibilities of this brilliantly created universe. Dark Matter is such an excellent science fiction thriller with an irresistible premise brilliantly fulfilled.’ Full review.
In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings
‘This is a novel of such beauty and elegance, I doubt I’ll read another this year that moves me quite as much. I don’t want to tell you what the mystery is. It’s not a great surprise but everything in this novel should be discovered for the first time by its fortunate reader. It takes us deep into Bella’s soul, removing her from the familiar, away from a controlling, bullish husband, and placing her in the most gorgeously painted Cornish seaside world, a place of myth and discovery. I’m a very regular visitor to this part of Cornwall and I loved its descriptions of familiar places around St Ives, especially the church at Zennor… Amanda Jennings writes so beautifully, I can’t begin to give In Her Wake the praise it deserves. It kept me up until late into the night. I didn’t want it to end but I finished it far too quickly. I just didn’t want to put it down. For all of its heavy themes, In Her Wake is not a depressing novel – it’s one that is life-affirming and inspirational, full of hope. I did cry a fair bit but some of those tears were tears of happiness… In Her Wake is a wonderful, wonderful novel. My emotions were rung out of me. A novel of the year for me and one I will be sure to keep close.’ Full review.
Six Tudor Queens I: Katherine of Aragon by Alison Weir
‘This novel, the first in an ambitious series to chronicle all of Henry’s marriages, queen by queen, is no romance. Historical authenticity is what matters here. Alison Weir, a well-known historian, gives us the detail of Tudor royal life. The palaces and their rooms are vividly described, the etiquette of court, the roles of the servants and nobles who kept it moving, and, increasingly, the men of power, such as Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More. Katherine’s position at the centre of the court is slowly marginalised as Anne Boleyn is sensed in the wings. This is a novel from Katherine’s perspective. As is so often the case, she is the last to know… [The novel] demonstrates so brilliantly that there is still so much to say about these most famous queens… [It] is not only very well written, compelling and meticulously researched, it is also a thing of beauty in its own right. This is a gorgeous hardback. I can’t wait to have the full series on my shelves. I can only repeat myself – this book is magnificent.’ Full review.
The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer
‘Eve Singer is the face of crime on TV’s iWitness News. Working closely with her cameraman Joe, Eve’s job is to chase crime, to capture it on film before any other news stations, to speak to the camera, to find the human story of pain, and bring the horror of crimes and accidents into homes. And all this while desperately trying not to throw up in the corner with the awfulness of what she has to see and report on to keep her job… The first chapter … is one of the most bloodcurdling and utterly gripping opening chapters that I’ve ever read in crime fiction. I couldn’t have put it down after those few pages if I’d wanted to and that was the last thing on my mind. This is a book I read late into the night, finishing it the next day. If you’re after a compelling, urgent pageturner then this is it. That opening chapter also captures the style and skill of Belinda Bauer. Something absolutely horrendous is being described but the tone is pitilessly sharp, witty and self-aware. It goes straight to the heart of the matter, turning the world of murder and serial killers into a reality… A great deal of praise has surrounded The Beautiful Dead since its publication. Not a word of it is undeserved.’ Full review.
Death’s End by Cixin Liu
‘Death’s End completes Cixin Liu’s science fiction masterpiece begun with The Three-Body Problem and continued in The Dark Forest… This is a beautifully-written novel, made particularly so by the translation of Ken Liu… The ideas are vast and at times very complex but the narrative takes its time to explain much of it in ways I could understand. Not all of it, but most of it. This is at heart a First Contact apocalyptic tale and for me little gets more gripping in fiction than that… We are presented with the infinite wonder of the universe, a universe in which other life must exist and on remarkable occasion is encountered. The differences are almost unfathomable. There is undoubtedly a bleakness to this vision. The insignificance of Earth is impossible to overstate. But what stands out are a few key humans who in each of the three books are shown to have had an immense influence over life and its development. Cultures are different but they can unite in a common cause. People will not give up and just look at what they can achieve! But for what? And it is that ultimate question which this final book in an astonishing masterpiece of a trilogy seeks to answer. This is one of those trilogies that I am the richer for reading.’ Full review.
Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
‘Black Spring has much to recommend it. Surrounded by countryside but close to major cities, it’s a secluded and picturesque small town that houses a close-knit community. It must be good because, after all, nobody ever seems to leave… Katherine van Wyler is Black Spring’s secret. She is also their witch. With her eyelids and lips sewn shut, she wanders the streets of the town, following a predictable pattern that she has followed for years but regularly breaking it to visit her neighbours. The townspeople have grown used to turning round in their houses only to see Katherine standing in the corner of a room, or standing outside the window staring in… I was gripped by Hex. I found it deliciously chilling and utterly engrossing. I was fascinated by Katherine and her story. I pitied her much more than I thought I would whereas the behaviour of the people horrified me. There are moments of sheer terror and, as the novel moves from the ‘normal’ to the very definitely not normal, I couldn’t wait to see what would happen. I was frightened. I did expect to see shadows in the corner when I turned off the light. Hex is such a creepy tale, relishing and playing with people’s expectations of witches and curses, while also demonstrating so effectively that the real horror may actually lie within.’ Full review.
The Medusa Chronicles by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds
‘Captain Howard Falcon should never have survived when his dirigible, Queen Elizabeth IV, crashed to Earth in the 2080s. Something of an experiment, Falcon was saved by cyborg surgery that turned him into something other than a man, something other than a robot. It also turned him into a curiosity, a position that was compounded when, in the 2090s, Falcon sailed into the upper gaseous clouds of Jupiter on the Kon-Tiki, a balloon craft, where he observed swimming great leviathans, the ‘medusae’, preyed upon by ‘mantas’. Falcon was able to communicate with these enormous beasts and proclaimed them peaceful. This is in Falcon’s past. Now the centuries are passing by… If I were to compile a checklist of everything I wanted from a work of science fiction, then this would tick every box and add some I hadn’t thought of. There are wonders to be found here. We are taken on many diversions, spending time away on other worlds, sometimes on Earth, even under the seas. The authors’ love for nature shines through here, not least in Jupiter. I defy you to read these scenes and not have them stay with you. There are so many memorable moments. The Medusa Chronicles is mesmerising, engrossing and beautifully written, its characters and dialogue imbued with wit and humanity, even after a great deal of time has passed and humans aren’t what they were.’ Full review.
The Furies of Rome by Robert Fabbri
‘It is AD 58 and, against all odds, Vespasian, as well as his brother Sabinus and uncle Gaius, has survived the madness-tinted reigns of emperors Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius. But now Rome is descending even deeper into the shadows – Nero is on the throne and everyone lives and dies at the mercy or whim of the emperor and his court of favourites… The Furies of Rome is divided in two, with the first half of the story taking place in Rome and the second in Britannia. It would be impossible to say which is the more enjoyable because both are absolutely superb and utterly gripping. It would be hard to imagine that anything can rival the cruelty and madness of Nero’s corrupt court as depicted here but Britannia under attack from Boudicca’s Revolt manages it. This is exciting stuff – intrigue and corruption on a massive scale in Rome with Britannia torn apart by violence, vengeance and war… Robert Fabbri’s portraits of the emperors are always fantastic and memorable – Tiberius gave me nightmares. But Fabbri reaches new heights with Nero. Here is an extraordinary figure – an insane mix of child and man. An emperor who wants to be the equal of his subjects – as a charioteer or a singer and musician – but in reality is a monster and megalomaniac. Nero is mesmerising on the page. Nero, though, is just one of many highlights in this gripping and worthy addition to a fine and consistently excellent series.’ Full review.
Gallows Drop by Mari Hannah
‘At long last DCI Kate Daniels is going to put herself first. She is just a day or two away from a long period of leave and she knows just how she’s going to spend it – repairing the relationships that matter the most. But little goes rarely to plan in this job, so why should Kate be surprised when the body of a young man is found hanging from an ancient gallows? There’s something especially poignant about this case. Kate was one of many who saw this lad win a wrestling competition at a country show the day before. He was in the prime of his life. How did he end up hanging from the gallows? And who’ll look after the case when Kate’s on leave? Will she be able to let it go?… Kate Daniels is a fantastic creation. She doesn’t always make the best of decisions and she has her faults but she is such a joy to know and, tellingly, she is much loved by her team, especially the adorable and protective DS Hank Gormley… Mari Hannah writes beautifully. We benefit hugely from her depth of research and knowledge. Her love of the stunning northern countryside also shines through. It’s evoked in both descriptions and dialogue. These novels have such a strong sense of place and it is lived in by some fascinating characters, some who behave well, some who don’t, and others who try and do their best. When you get to the end of this fantastic novel and read its final pages you will know why I am desperate for the next book in the series. Crime fiction doesn’t get much better than this. ‘Full review.
First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson
‘It is 1451 and Henry VI, a troubled and unhappy man, more monk than king, realises that he is in need of family. He has been unable to give his queen, Marguerite of Anjou, the child they need to secure their royal line, and the royal dukes are becoming increasingly watchful and belligerent. Henry summons his half-brothers to court, Edmund and Jasper Tudor, the sons of a secret and illegal marriage between Henry V’s widow Catherine of Valois and the Welsh poet Owen Tudor who stole her heart. Soon they are the confidants of Henry and his queen, given titles and lands, precedence, and the prospect of a rich and noble marriage. Lucky for them, then, that there is another new person at court – Margaret Beaufort, the charismatic, painfully young and tiny heiress, the richest in the land and in the gift of the king… First of the Tudors picks up the thread of the story begun with The Agincourt Bride and continued with The Tudor Bride. These magnificent, enchanting novels told the tale of Catherine of Valois’ transformation into Henry V’s Queen of England and then, pulling happiness from grief, wife of Owen Tudor. And now, Joanna Hickson returns to the story of Catherine’s family, focusing on her second Tudor son, Jasper… A standout figure for me is Margaret Beaufort. Joanna Hickson captures something enthralling about her. There is a power and strength to her that contrasts so well with her vulnerability and, for the earlier part of the novel at least, her innocence. Watching that innocence be destroyed is one of the most affecting and compelling parts of the novel… This is a tale that moves between castles… Joanna Hickson has brought those stone walls back to life and filled them with the voices of the people who called them home.’ Full review.
The Long Cosmos by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
‘The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter was always intended to be five novels long, The Long Cosmos being its last. But the loss of Terry Pratchett in 2015 has added such a sadness and a finality to its closure. Much of The Long Cosmos was completed before Terry’s death but Stephen Baxter is to be warmly thanked for his dedication in bringing it to this finished, polished state, thereby concluding a series that I have adored for the last four years… I’ve been trying so hard to think about what it is that makes me love this series so deeply. The story itself is built on a brilliant premise and it is supported by so many fantastic ideas and objects, some of them very funny and others astonishing, making me marvel at the imaginations that created them. We are taken to so many different worlds, which range from the incredibly odd (with wildlife to match) to the tragically afflicted. Some are even off-planet – as we enjoyed in The Long Mars. But there’s more to the series that even this. Its vision is so richly humane, warm, witty, compassionate. At times there is deep melancholy, it can certainly be quirky, but above all – and I’ve said this before – it’s wise. But not in a preaching way, in a kind way. The wonders of this series are immense, the appeal of the characters is limitless, the imagination behind its creativity is glorious, and its wit and compassion are marvellous.’ Full review.
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
‘It is 1885 and Colonel Allen Forrester, with such a small group of men, leaves Vancouver to embark on an expedition to explore the Wolverine River in Alaska… Colonel Forrester’s mind is not entirely on his mission. Recently married to Sophie, he has had to leave her behind in the barracks at Vancouver, with only the other officers’ wives and daughters for company. And Sophie has such an adventurous, independent spirit. She would far prefer to be exploring with her husband, capturing the images on a camera, seeing with her own eyes the wildlife of this remote region. But it is not to be and instead she must stay behind, missing her husband intensely, experiencing a personal journey of her own, every bit as hazardous as the one that her husband must face, fearing that he may never return, too distant for letters, her mind too alive to the risks ahead while doing all she can to combat them… The writing is breathlessly beautiful. The journal extracts bring the long dead characters of Allen and Sophie to life in such a meaningful, memorable way. They both lay themselves bare and it is hypnotic, a privilege to be allowed so deeply into their lives and thoughts. The illustrations work so well. This is such an attractive book even before you read its words! But what makes it truly astounding is its portrayal of the natural world, not just in Alaska but also in Vancouver. Nature is infused with magic and the imagination. Its wonders are ultimately unknowable despite mankind’s best efforts to record it and trap it, whether physically or through the lens of a camera… This is a very special book indeed and Eowyn Ivey is an incredibly gifted writer, bringing to us all the wonder, beautiful strangeness and fragility of the Alaska she loves.’ Full review.
Which brings me to my favourite book published in 2016:
Conclave by Robert Harris
‘The Pope is dead. One hundred and eighteen cardinals gather from across the world to form the Conclave that will elect the next Pope in proceedings steeped in tradition, shrouded in complete secrecy. Millions upon millions of the faithful and the interested watch the chimney above the Sistine Chapel for the tell-tale white smoke that would mean that a decision has been reached. But, before the white smoke can come, there may be days of black smoke – evidence of conflict, inconclusive votes, factions… In Conclave, Robert Harris achieves a remarkable feat, creating a story that feels remote from the world and from time… The novel is set in the near future – we’re told that no actual real figure is represented here – but it feels timeless… Harris captures the claustrophobia of the Conclave, the lack of fresh air and light, the increasing stress and almost hysteria as a conclusive vote eludes the cardinals. And within these confines, covering a period of just a few days, Harris develops a mood of such tension and expectation that I could not bear to put this book down. Robert Harris manages this tension wonderfully, turning up the pressure valve as we move from vote to vote in a perfectly structured novel. This is a thriller, albeit an unusual and original thriller, and a main reason for its success is the outstanding cast of characters.’ One might never have thought that such a subject could provide the subject for a thriller as tense and compelling as this one but with this masterpiece Harris proves how wrong we are and how right he is.’ Full review.