Category Archives: Feature

Book review of 2018

It’s that time of year again… and the task this year is even more difficult than usual because 2018 has been a particularly brilliant year for books (which is just as well as it’s been an especially horrible year in lots of other ways). I must thank all of the wonderful publishers and authors who have brightened my year. Plenty of debut authors have now been added to my list of authors to watch while other writers whose books I’ve loved for years have once again fed my habit for their books – and I’m so grateful.

There are still a few days left of 2018 and so I don’t yet have my final tally of books read but it will be about 192 books, which is over 20 more than last year. That amazes me as I thought I read a lot last year but I think I’ve spent quite a bit of 2018 heads down with my nose in a book. And, as I mentioned, I think 2018 has been particularly strong for books, especially historical fiction. Conversely, I haven’t read as much science fiction as normal this year, which is not a good thing. Usually the year is finished off with the latest Expanse novel by James S.A. Corey but the new one won’t be out until well into 2019. But there has been far less science fiction about in 2018 that’s grabbed me or that I’ve discovered. Which means I’m going to seek out more of it in 2019.

Historical fiction, as I say, has been on top form in 2018, which has made my top books selection especially hard. I could have filled the entire list with it. But I’ve done my best to be strict and resist the temptation to divide my top books by genre. I want it to be difficult!

I’ve also enjoyed crime fiction and thrillers enormously in 2018. I’ve largely avoided psychological thrillers because I read too many of them in 2017 but historical crime and detective crime have been so good this year. As has horror and the Gothic! I’ve especially enjoyed both crime and horror books set in unusual and atmospheric places, such as haunted houses, old mansions, Scottish islands, the Peak District or the Scilly Isles.

Without further ado, here is my top 10, which is actually more like sixteen and a bit. It’s a miracle I got it down to this few as my first list had 58 books on it. They’re in no particular order except at the end when I will try and make my final choice for my favourite book of 2018. I must first, though, thank everyone for taking the time to read my reviews over the past year. I love writing them but you make it all worthwhile. Here’s to a 2019 of books that is every bit as good as 2018. I’ve read a few 2019 books already and the signs are very good indeed!


London Rules by Mick Herron
The fifth book in Mick Herron’s brilliantly witty, sharp and clever Slough House series of spy novels but miraculously the first I’ve read. It won’t be the last and I have the rest all ready to go. Mick Herron is so good at combining tragedy and comedy, showing how closely the two can be linked and how this pulls emotions from us. Jackson Lamb, a man held together by bad habits, once met is impossible to forget.

Don’t Make a Sound by David Jackson
One of the most compelling, gripping and accomplished crime novels I’ve read in a very long time. What it describes is so horribly awful and yet it feels completely believable and real. Outstanding characters, beautifully written, and all presented with a style and skill that urges the reader to keep turning those pages. When you pick this book up, put everything else aside. Prepare to be lost within it. Brilliant.

Night Flight to Paris by David Gilman
This year I was fascinated by stories of spies and wartime, possibly because of the centenary, and more than one of these novels stood out and there’s another on this list. I could also mention Rory Clements’ Wilde trilogy. But Night Flight especially gripped me. I urge you to read this novel and meet these fantastic characters. To feel the tension of following them through the danger of missions and just in daily life, which can be every bit as terrifying, waiting for a car to screech to a halt outside the door, for the sound of boots running up the stairs, the bang on the door, the guns in the face. Clever, complex, gripping, emotionally engaging, terrifying. And so much more.


The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths
I couldn’t wait to read The Stranger Diaries, a stand alone Gothic murder mystery set in an old school by an author I have such affection for, and I loved it even more than I knew I would! This is the best of writing. Elly Griffiths is brilliant at creating characters that might have their flaws and eccentricities but we fall for them so deeply all the same. I love the theme of writing and diaries that runs through it. It is also extremely chilling – imagine writing in your diary only to find out that a stranger has left a message in it! The setting here is every bit as central to the story as the plot and characters and I loved every minute of it all.

Hammer of Rome by Douglas Jackson
The wonderful Hero of Rome series comes to an end with Hammer of Rome. It’s time to say goodbye to Gaius Valerius Verrens. We’ve been through so much together, fighting in some of Rome’s most infamous of conflicts across the empire, beginning with Boudicca. This finale is superb as Valerius returns to where it all began, Britannia.

A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan
I love a haunted house ghost story and this is quite possibly the best I’ve ever read. I particularly enjoyed the way in which the story relates to the First World War, a conflict that created so many ghosts. Kate Cartwright is a brilliant heroine with an attitude towards ghosts that is fascinating and so effective here. It’s beautifully written and richly evocative of its time and setting. It’s frightening in places but also, rather unexpectedly, I found it comforting and warm, despite the chill of its winter storm.


Dark Water by Elizabeth Lowry
This irresistible novel presents a thoroughly engrossing and immersive tale of seafaring disaster, madness, impossible love and loneliness set against the backdrop of 19th-century Boston, Nantucket and the vast blue expanse of the ocean. Its portrait of Hiram Carver, doctor to the insane in Charleston near Boston in Massachusetts, and a man we watch disintegrate, should not be missed. I love novels about the sea, especially when they’re tinged with the hint of mystery, of the unknown, and this beautiful and exquisite novel swept me off my feet.

Someone Like Me by Michael Carey
This wonderful book, my favourite by this fabulous author, works so well as a work of horror but it also travels so deeply into the human psyche to explore the ways in which its characters cope with trauma and loss. I fell very deeply for this book and for some of its lives – most particularly Fran, Lady Jinx and Molly. I have no words to describe how much I love Molly and Jinx. The love we feel for them makes sections of this novel heart wrenching. It’s impossible not to feel completely involved. And with the pain we feel comes the huge reward of reading a novel that is so utterly captivating.

Tombland by C.J. Sansom
At last Matthew Shardlake returns! The setting is Norfolk during the reign of young Edward VI, a time of unhappiness and revolt, and Shardlake and his friends are caught up in the very heart of it. Sansom is an exceptional writer. His prose is truly immersive, bringing the Tudor world to life around us with his elegant and precise descriptions. The plot is riveting and goes way beyond the case that Sansom has been sent, by the Princess Elizabeth, to investigate. In my opinion, this is the best in the series.


Noumenon Infinity (and Noumenon) by Marina J. Lostetter
The Noumenon books (hence the total of 16 and a bit for my list because I’m including two books here) are, with the addition of another SF book later on in the list, the most fun I had reading science fiction this year. I read them back to back and they ticked every box. Spaceships, distant planets, alien artefacts, AIs, time distortions, people adapting to life aboard a generation starship, bloodcurdling terror, love, the unknown. All of it described so beautifully and evocatively, with humour and sensitivity, by Marina J. Lostetter, an author who can do no wrong in my eyes.

The Moscow Cipher by Scott Mariani
If I had to choose one series of books to smuggle away with me while I was marooned on a desert island (with a cocktail bar and air-conditioned suite), it would be Scott Mariani’s Ben Hope thrillers. These are my favourite thrillers in the world and I’ve read them for years. I could rave about Ben Hope all day long and very happily I get the chance to do so twice a year because that’s how often he’s published. The Moscow Cipher is the book I’ve picked here but it could just as easily have been the second 2018 Hope novel, The Rebel’s Revenge.

Retribution by Anthony Riches
Anthony Riches is a prolific author of the most brilliant Roman military historical fiction. His Empire series is one of my very favourites from any genre but more recently he’s given us the Centurions trilogy which brings to bloody life the Batavi Revolt that followed the death of Nero. This series is very fine indeed and the tale it tells is pleasingly complex and hugely rewarding, not to mention thrilling. It ends in spectacular fashion with Retribution, one of the very best novels I read this year.


A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott
Manda Scott can do no wrong in my eyes. Her writing is impeccable, her insight into human behaviour, as well as into the themes of history, is profound. A Treachery of Spies is a superb spy thriller which traces the origins of a complex web of treachery and lies back to the Second World War and a group of the French Resistance. Good and evil battle it out here, the fight that never ends. It’s like the end of the world to see such heroism and courage slaughtered while we must praise the valour of people like Picaut, our heroine, and others in this novel who will not give up the fight. An outstanding novel from one of the very finest authors writing today.

Head On by John Scalzi
This book is so much fun! A virus has left some people ‘locked in’, in a waking coma. They are able to transfer their consciousness into robots called threeps. And now threeps have become superstars, competing in a popular sport in which the object is to cut off the head of one’s opponent. It’s impossible for the locked in human controlling the threep to die – until one day one does. A threep FBI agent must investigate an extraordinary conspiracy. There are some big and serious themes here but Head On is also a book full of lightness, humanity and fun. John Scalzi is such a witty writer, one of my very favourites, and he’s filled his threeps with personality. I love this book!

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
This novel is astonishing, gobsmacking and all kinds of words that fail to do it justice. It tells an elaborate (that’s an understatement) tale set one party weekend in a country mansion just after the First World War. When one of the guests, Evelyn Hardcastle, is found murdered, the ingredients are there for delicious cosy crime. But throw those preconceptions out of the window right now! Evelyn will die not once, but seven times. Aiden Bishop must try to solve the crime, time after time, and each time he will inhabit the body of a different person. Someone is determined that he will not be successful. Stuart Turton is a genius. I’ve never come across plotting like this before. And I must also mention the gorgeous maps. This book is my runner up for top book of 2018.

Which leaves only one. My favourite book of 2018 was…

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate MascarenhasThe Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas. This is the tale of four women who invented the time machine in 1967. Half a century later, in 2018, Odette discovers the dead body of an elderly woman in a locked room in a toy museum, a death perhaps foretold by a message sent from the future back to 2017. And so begins one of the most incredible novels I’ve read for several years. It’s an enormous achievement. It is an immensely rewarding novel that is also very cleverly complex and so you do need to pay close attention. It’s certainly worth it. It is mesmerising. The narrative jumps and skips backwards and forwards throughout, following the lives of a group of women over fifty years or so, but mostly focusing on events in 2017 and 2018. And making it even more complex and absolutely riveting is that sometimes we meet a character in the ‘wrong time’, when she is time travelling. There is none of that directive that we’re used to that two versions of the same person can’t co-exist in the same time – here you can have as many of yourselves as you like. You can revisit key times in your life and share those times with a limitless number of yourselves. You can even dance with yourself, if you fancy it.

The mystery at the heart of the book is such a good one and every bit as quirky and curious as the rest of the novel. But its enormous appeal lies mostly in its wonderful, wonderful people and the wit and warmth with which they’re described as they flit and dance through each other’s lives – and their own. Sometimes they can bring misfortune, even death, but mostly they bring love and such a depth of feeling. Utterly captivating and my favourite novel of 2018.

Honourable mentions

This list was very hard to compile. I had to make some difficult choices. So I thought I’d include here six honourable mentions for books I loved so much from the three genres that I adore – historical fiction, science fiction, crime/thrillers.

Historical fiction
Clash of Empires by Ben Kane
The Tudor Crown by Joanna Hickson
Old Baggage by Lissa Evans
The Falcon of Sparta by Conn Igguldon
Blood’s Revolution by Angus Donald
The King’s Witch by Tracy Borman

Science fiction
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell
Adrift by Rob Boffard
Ball Lightning by Cixin Liu
Salvation by Peter F. Hamilton
Drop by Drop by Morgan Llywelyn

Crime and thrillers
The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox
The Blood Road by Stuart MacBride
Panic Room by Robert Goddard
Star of the North by D.B. John
Under the Ice by Rachael Blok
The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz

Phew! What a smorgasbord of fantastic books! The challenge is laid down to 2019….. bring it on!

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Roman historical fiction – a big thank you!

Rome: Eagle of the Twelfth by MC ScottAs the end of the year approaches – and while I continue to hum and haw about my top ten books of the year (at one point this week I managed to get my top 10 down to 58), I thought I’d embark on a series of posts to thank those serial authors whose books I have loved over the years and who, in very large part, are responsible for making me the hungry reader that I am today.

I’m a huge fan of historical fiction, to put it mildly, and there are some series that I have deep affection for and I look forward to the latest addition every year. The fact that each series must eventually end is not something that makes me happy. And this year I’ve mourned the loss of more than one. Although there is now the excitement of wondering where these beloved authors will take us next!

I’m an archaeologist by trade and my favourite period has always been the Roman era. Roman historical fiction forms the heart of my book love. Other periods of history do come in and cheekily steal my attention but I can never get enough of the Romans. So here are the authors I’d heartily recommend, although I suspect that many of you will be enjoying their books already and you don’t need me to tell you how flippin’ marvellous they are.

Hammer of Rome by Douglas JacksonThis year, Douglas Jackson finished his Hero of Rome books with the fantastic Hammer of Rome. Gaius Valerius Verrens is a true hero of Rome, a man we’ve followed through hard times and good as he’s faced some of Rome’s deadliest enemies of the 1st century AD, including Boudicca. He did not emerge from that fight unscathed.

In the new year, Robert Fabbri will finally conclude his chronicle of the rise to power from humble origins, through bloody war, of the Emperor Vespasian. Tribune of Rome began the series and it now ends with Emperor of Rome. Vespasian is not the man he once was – how can he be? He must now learn to become a god.

Another series due to end in the new year is Ian Ross’s Twilight of Empire series set in the 4th century AD. It began with War at the Edge of the World and will conclude with Triumph in Dust in January and I cannot wait to read it! Aurelius Castus is such a fine character who has risen through the ranks to the very top but there seems no end in sight to the civil war that has divided the empire into pieces.

Anthony Riches is an author it’s an absolute pleasure to rave about. He’s just finished a trilogy on the incredible Batavian Revolt, which followed the death of Nero. The Centurions trilogy began with Betrayal and concluded this year with Retribution. This is a masterpiece of storytelling and so good is it, I am prepared to forgive its disruption of his long running Empire series (begun with Wounds of Honour), which is due to continue shortly. We’ve travelled a long way with Marcus Aquila and his troop of Tungrians and I can’t wait to resume the journey.

Conn Iggulden has turned his attention elsewhere in more recent years but his Emperor series is superb. Covering the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire, the series ended with the brilliant The Blood of Gods. Conn’s most recent novel takes us to ancient Greece with the fantastic The Falcon of Sparta.

Eagles at War by Ben KaneI’ve been a big fan of Ben Kane for years and he’s given us several series and I love them all. Ben has tackled Hannibal and Spartacus. My favourite series so far by Ben has been his recently completed trilogy on the great defeat of Varus in AD 9 by Arminius and the seizure of Varus’s three eagles – Rome’s most infamous and famous defeat. It began with Eagles at War, which tells the terrifying and bloody tale from the point of view of centurion Tullus. It’s brilliant. Ben’s latest novel, Clash of Empires, tells the story of what happened when Greek culture encountered head on the might of Rome.

Harry Sidebottom is well known for his military series featuring Ballista, the Warrior of Rome (begun with Fire in the East, and Ballista has reappeared recently in this year’s excellent Roman thriller The Last Hour – Ballista has only one day to save the emperor from assassination and the empire from disaster. I can also recommend Harry’s now complete trilogy The Throne of the Caesars, begun with Iron and Rust.

The Earthly Gods by Nick BrownI am a huge fan of Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series. Cassius Corbulo is a young spy thrown very much into the deep end and sent off on all manner of perilous missions across the empire during the late 3rd century AD. His Christian servant Simo is such a memorable creation as is Cassius’s bodyguard and ex-gladiator Indavara. This series began with The Siege and the most recent and sixth novel was The Earthly Gods. I long for this series to return – I’m keeping everything crossed.

Manda (MC) Scott is one of the finest writers about, whichever period of history she writes about. I adore her Rome series, which began with The Emperor’s Spy and ended with book four The Art of war. The Eagle of the Twelfth, set during the reign of Nero, is one of the very best novels I’ve ever read. Demalion of Macedon is an extraordinary character. This is powerful writing that also never forgets how to tell a good tale.

Britannia by Simon ScarrowWhen talking about Roman military fiction, I can’t leave out Simon Scarrow’s Macro and Cato series which I have loved for years (the latest novel The Blood of Rome was published this year. My favourite is Britannia). You also shouldn’t miss SJA Turney’s Marius Mules’ long running series which covers the military campaigns of Julius Caesar. The series began with The Invasion of Gaul.

I can’t get enough of Roman crime fiction and some series have long legs. David Wishart’s Marcus Corvinus series is possibly my favourite and I’ve been reading it for more years than I care to mention. This year the nineteenth was published, Family Commitments, and I think it could be one of the best of the entire series. Although arguably Corvinus isn’t the star of the books. That honour begins to his butler Bathyllus and his megalomaniac chef. Other series that I’ve enjoyed are Rosemary Rowe’s long running series featuring the British mosaic maker Libertus (the latest novel is The Price of Freedom) and Steven Saylor’s Sub Rosa series. The Throne of Caesar about the assassination of Julius Caesar was published this year and it is wonderful! I must also recommend Ruth Downie’s crime series which features Roman doctor Ruso. His latest case, Memento Mori, was published this year.

Pandora's Boy by Lindsey DavisLike so many of us I’ve read and loved Lindsey Davis’s books for years. Who doesn’t love Marcus Didius Falco, Vespasian’s spy? His cases kept me entertained for years until it was time for him to retire and settle down in the antique business. Now it’s the turn of his adopted daughter Flavia Albia, who must also contend with Rome’s attitudes towards a female detective (Rome doesn’t like it) plus a new husband who is suffering from being struck by lightning. Flavia’s last case was Pandora’s Boy. She will return for her seventh case, A Capitol Death, in the spring. Fantastic!

I’ll finish with Rome’s emperors. I just can’t get enough of them. I’ve hugely enjoyed Margaret George’s two books on Nero, beginning with The Confessions of Young Nero and concluding this year with The Splendour Before the Dark. Caligula by Simon TurneyOne of the book highlights of this year was Simon Turney’s fantastic novel on Caligula. Simon will next turn his attention to Commodus – this makes me very happy indeed.

And so there we have it! I know I’ll have left wonderful authors and fabulous books out and I’ll be troubled by that. But I think there’s enough here to start with. My plea to publishers is that you never stop publishing Roman historical fiction. I cannot be without it. I need more! And to all of those authors whose novels have, and continue to, thrill, move and entertain me – I’m so grateful. Thank you! I can’t wait to travel back through time with you again next year.

‘Opening the Doors of Perception’ – Guest post by Gavin Scott, author of The Age of Exodus

Earlier this month, Titan Books published Age of Exodus by Gavin Scott. You can read my review of this excellent historical thriller here. I’m delighted to present here a guest post by Gavin Scott in which he discusses the books that inspired him the most, that liberated his imagination and opened the doors of perception.

In 1960, when I was ten years old a mysterious boy appeared at my primary school in Hull and gave me to a heavy, cloth-covered volume published by Ernest Benn and Co: The Short Stories of H.G. Wells. I cannot remember the boy’s name, and I sometimes ask myself who he really was, but it was a book that for me opened the Doors of Perception. I began with a story called The Stolen Bacillus, which starts out as a scientific thriller and ends as riotous comedy. Then I read A Deal in Ostriches and found the payoff was even funnier, which led to the delights of The Truth about Pyecraft and his extraordinary weight reduction formula. Then Jimmy Goggles the God, and the mysteries of The Moth, and on, and on… Collectively, Wells’ stories liberated my imagination, and it has never, I think, been entirely recaptured by mere everyday reality.

I discovered Jules Verne around the same time, inspired – no, desperate – to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea after seeing the Disney movie starring James Mason as the tragic, haunted Captain Nemo. At my urging my parents bought the book for me for Christmas 1960 and I remember coming down secretly to read it before it was officially handed over on Christmas Day. If Wells freed my imagination, Verne taught me how to send it racing along the great, streamlined canals of scientific research.

And then, of course, there was Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, in John Murray’s evocative paperback edition, drew me into the foggy streets of 1890’s London through prose that made me feel as if Dr. Watson’s pipe-smoke was swirling hypnotically around me as I read. To science and the imagination were added the allure of mystery and detection, and I read and re-read the entire Holmes canon on the ship that took my family from England to New Zealand in 1961.

Not long after we arrived amid the fields and orchards of Hawkes Bay, the pleasures of detection were supplemented by the delights of pell-mell, helter-skelter action, as experienced in John Buchan’s great thriller, The Thirty Nine Steps. And not just action – but terrific nature writing which evoked, with great precision, the green glens of the Scottish lowlands where the chase took place. From then I traveled with Richard Hannay through the forests of Germany, the dangerous alleys of Istanbul, and the austere northern beauties of The Island of Sheep.

In 1962 at a church bazaar in the little village of Havelock North I discovered P.G. Wodehouse’s, Jeeves and Wooster stories, in those thick-paged volumes with their alluringly cartoon covers produced by Herbert Jenkins Ltd. As well as comic timing, Wodehouse not only taught me plotting – he is a master of narrative construction – but also the incredible richness of which the English language is capable. His prose incorporates the cadences of Shakespeare, Milton, the Bible, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ethel M Dell and the British Foreign Office in a series of gloriously baroque word-cathedrals.

Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible are also to be found, of course, in the next great author into whose world I entered: J.R.R. Tolkien – together with the sturdy rhythms of Icelandic sagas and Anglo-Saxon chronicles. I found The Lord of the Rings during the early lonely weeks after I got a scholarship to a boarding school called Wanganui Collegiate, which gave me a good education in a somewhat demanding environment. Over the next three years whenever I needed to escape from it all I needed to do was open one of those volumes with Sauron’s eye staring out of the grey cover, and find myself in Middle Earth – and particularly among the wooded hills between Hobbiton and the Buckland Ferry – on a quest of my own.

The final early literary influence to whom I want to pay tribute has fallen from fashion these days, but is still, in my view a font of wisdom and insight into the human heart. I came across C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers novels when, graduating from my boarding school at 17, I volunteered for a New Zealand government program to teach English to Iban, Chinese and Malay kids in a jungle school in Sarawak. It was an extraordinary experience, but again, like Wanganui Collegiate, a demanding one, and there were times when the perfect antidote was not just to accompany Snow’s hero, Lewis Eliot on his rise through the English class system but to bask in the judicious humanity of Snow’s own wise, forgiving company.

That, I think, is what those early literary experiences inspired me to want to create – worlds, both physical and psychological, into which readers would want to enter when reality becomes just a little too much. And to which both they – and I – can return whenever we wish. That, at any rate, is what I believe lay behind the gift of the mysterious book when I was a child, and it is certainly what the Duncan Forrester adventures aspire to now.

The Age of Exodus by Gavin ScottGavin Scott’s third historical detective thriller, The Age of Exodus, was published by Titan Books on 11 September. It features Scott’s archaeologist hero Duncan Forrester, the creation of Israel, Ernest Bevin, and a Sumerian demon. With its two predecessors, The Age of Treachery and The Age of Olympus, it is available from Amazon and other outlets in paperback, on Kindle and as an audiobook, read by the author.

2018 crime fiction and thrillers – looking ahead (January to May)

In the last of my three 2018 preview posts, it’s time for crime fiction and thrillers! Many of these are published each month and so this is a particularly selective post. I’m also not a big reader of psychological thrillers so this post very much reflects my personal taste. The books below are published between January and the end of May. I suspect I shall be adding plenty more to this list over the coming weeks… Historical crime can be found in the historical fiction preview post. You can read my selection of historical fiction books here and science fiction here.

Crime fiction and thrillers

The Gathering Dark by James Oswald (January; Michael Joseph)
How I love the Inspector McLean books and I jumped on this the moment it arrived. It’s a corker and I loved it but blimey is it darker than dark…. ‘A truck driver loses control in central Edinburgh, ploughing into a crowded bus stop and spilling his vehicle’s toxic load. The consequences are devastating. DI Tony McLean witnesses the carnage. Taking control of the investigation, he soon realises there is much that is deeply amiss – and everyone involved seems to have something to hide. But as McLean struggles to uncover who caused the tragedy, a greater crisis develops: the new Chief Superintendent’s son is missing, last seen in the area of the crash…’

The Chalk Man by CJ Tudor (January; Michael Joseph)
I finished this very late one night this week – an extraordinary debut. Clever, compelling and surprising, and as much horror as crime. ‘The Chalk Man is coming… None of us ever agreed on the exact beginning. Was it when we started drawing the chalk figures, or when they started to appear on their own? Was it the terrible accident? Or when they found the first body?’

If I Die Before I Wake by Emily KochIf I Die Before I Wake by Emily Koch (January; Harvill Secker)
I’ve recently finished this and so the review is on the way shortly. ‘How do you solve your own murder? Everyone believes Alex is in a coma, unlikely to ever wake up. As his family debate withdrawing life support, and his friends talk about how his girlfriend Bea needs to move on, he can only listen. But Alex soon begins to suspect that the accident that put him here wasn’t really an accident. Even worse, the perpetrator is still out there and Alex is not the only one in danger. As he goes over a series of clues from his past, Alex must use his remaining senses to solve the mystery of who tried to kill him, and try to protect those he loves, before they decide to let him go.’

This is How it Ends by Eva Dolan (January; Raven Books)
‘This is how it begins. With a near-empty building, the inhabitants forced out of their homes by property developers. With two women: idealistic, impassioned blogger Ella and seasoned campaigner, Molly. With a body hidden in a lift shaft. But how will it end?’

Need to Know by Karen ClevelandNeed to Know by Karen Cleveland (January; Bantam Press)
This is an outstanding psychological thriller with a great spy twist! ‘Vivian Miller is a CIA analyst assigned to uncover Russian sleeper cells in the USA. After accessing the computer of a potential Russian spy, she stumbles on a secret dossier of deep-cover agents living in her own country. Five seemingly normal people living in plain sight. A few clicks later, everything that matters to Vivian is threatened – her job, her husband, even her four children… Vivian has vowed to defend her country against all enemies, foreign and domestic. But now she’s facing impossible choices. Torn between loyalty and betrayal, allegiance and treason, love and suspicion, who can she trust? Will her next move be the right one?’

Hell Bay by Kate Rhodes (January; Simon & Schuster)
‘DI Ben Kitto needs a second chance. After ten years working for the murder squad in London, a traumatic event has left him grief-stricken. He’s tried to resign from his job, but his boss has persuaded him to take three months to reconsider. Ben plans to work in his uncle Ray’s boatyard, on the tiny Scilly island of Bryher where he was born, hoping to mend his shattered nerves. His plans go awry when the body of sixteen year old Laura Trescothick is found on the beach at Hell Bay. Her attacker must still be on the island because no ferries have sailed during a two-day storm. Everyone on the island is under suspicion. Dark secrets are about to resurface. And the murderer could strike again at any time.’

The Confession by Jo Spain (January; Quercus)
‘Late one night a man walks into the luxurious home of disgraced banker Harry McNamara and his wife Julie. The man launches an unspeakably brutal attack on Harry as a horror-struck Julie watches, frozen by fear. Just an hour later the attacker, JP Carney, has handed himself in to the police. He confesses to beating Harry to death, but JP claims that the assault was not premeditated and that he didn’t know the identity of his victim. With a man as notorious as Harry McNamara, the detectives cannot help wondering, was this really a random act of violence or is it linked to one of Harry’s many sins: corruption, greed, betrayal? This gripping psychological thriller will have you questioning, who – of Harry, Julie and JP – is really the guilty one? And is Carney’s surrender driven by a guilty conscience or is his confession a calculated move in a deadly game?’

Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan (January; Simon & Schuster)
‘A high-profile marriage thrust into the spotlight. A wife, determined to keep her family safe, must face a prosecutor who believes justice has been a long time coming. A scandal that will rock Westminster. And the women caught at the heart of it. Anatomy of a Scandal centres on a high-profile marriage that begins to unravel when the husband is accused of a terrible crime. Sophie is sure her husband, James, is innocent and desperately hopes to protect her precious family from the lies which might ruin them. Kate is the barrister who will prosecute the case – she is equally certain that James is guilty and determined he will pay for his crimes.’

A Darker State by David Young (February; Zaffre)
‘For the Stasi, it’s not just the truth that gets buried… The body of a teenage boy is found weighted down in a lake. Karin Müller, newly appointed Major of the People’s Police, is called to investigate. But her power will only stretch so far, when every move she makes is under the watchful eye of the Stasi. Then, when the son of Müller’s team member goes missing, it quickly becomes clear that there is a terrifying conspiracy at the heart of this case, one that could fast lead Müller and her young family into real danger. Can she navigate this complex political web and find the missing boy, before it’s too late?’

The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths (February; Quercus)
A new novel by Elly Griffiths…. perfect. ‘Dr Ruth Galloway is flattered when she receives a letter from Italian archaeologist Dr Angelo Morelli, asking for her help. He’s discovered a group of bones in a tiny hilltop village near Rome but doesn’t know what to make of them. It’s years since Ruth has had a holiday, and even a working holiday to Italy is very welcome! So Ruth travels to Castello degli Angeli, accompanied by her daughter Kate and friend Shona. In the town she finds a baffling Roman mystery and a dark secret involving the war years and the Resistance. To her amazement she also soon finds Harry Nelson, with Cathbad in tow. But there is no time to overcome their mutual shock – the ancient bones spark a modern murder, and Ruth must discover what secrets there are in Castello degli Angeli that someone would kill to protect.’

Gallery of the Dead by Chris Carter (February; Simon & Schuster)
‘‘Thirty-seven years in the force, and if I was allowed to choose just one thing to erase from my mind, what’s inside that room would be it.’ That’s what a LAPD Lieutenant tells Detectives Hunter and Garcia of the Ultra Violent Crimes Unit as they arrive at one of the most shocking crime scenes they have ever attended. In a completely unexpected turn of events, the detectives find themselves joining forces with the FBI to track down a serial killer whose hunting ground sees no borders; a psychopath who loves what he does because to him murder is much more than just killing – it’s an art form. Welcome to The Gallery of the Dead.’

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart TurtonThe Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (February; Raven Books)
I have had the pleasure of reading this already and it is absolutely fantastic! Hugely original, clever and mindblowing. A candidate for book of the year already. ”Somebody’s going to be murdered at the ball tonight. It won’t appear to be a murder and so the murderer won’t be caught. Rectify that injustice and I’ll show you the way out.’ It is meant to be a celebration but it ends in tragedy. As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed. But Evelyn will not die just once. Until Aiden – one of the guests summoned to Blackheath for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again. Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot. The only way to break this cycle is to identify the killer. But each time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is determined to prevent him ever escaping Blackheath…’

The Collector by Fiona Cummins (February; Macmillan)
‘Jakey escaped with his life and moved to a new town. His rescue was a miracle but his parents know that the Collector is still out there, watching, waiting… Clara, the girl he left behind, dreams of being found. Her mother is falling apart but she will not give up hope. The Collector has found an apprentice to take over his family’s legacy. But he can’t forget the one who got away and the detective who destroyed his dreams. DS Etta Fitzroy must hunt him down before his obsession destroys them all.’

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (February; Little Brown)
‘FIVE WENT OUT. FOUR CAME BACK… Is Alice here? Did she make it? Is she safe? In the chaos, in the night, it was impossible to say which of the four had asked after Alice’s welfare. Later, when everything got worse, each would insist it had been them. Five women reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking along the muddy track. Only four come out the other side. The hike through the rugged landscape is meant to take the office colleagues out of their air-conditioned comfort zone and teach resilience and team building. At least that is what the corporate retreat website advertises. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a particularly keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing bushwalker. Alice Russell is the whistleblower in his latest case – and Alice knew secrets. About the company she worked for and the people she worked with. Far from the hike encouraging teamwork, the women tell Falk a tale of suspicion, violence and disintegrating trust. And as he delves into the disappearance, it seems some dangers may run far deeper than anyone knew.’

Look for Me by Lisa Gardner (February; Century)
‘Detective DD Warren and Flora Dane are in a race against time to save a young girl’s life – or bring her to justice. A family home has become a crime scene. Five people are involved: four of them have been savagely murdered; one – a sixteen-year-old girl – is missing. Was she lucky to have escaped? Or is her absence evidence of something sinister? Detective D. D. Warren is on the case, as is survivor-turned-avenger Flora Dane. Seeking different types of justice, they must make sense of the clues left behind by a young woman who, as victim or suspect, is silently pleading, Look for me.’

The Liar’s Girl by Catherine Ryan Howard (March; Corvus)
‘Her first love confessed to five murders. But the truth was so much worse. Dublin’s notorious Canal Killer, Will Hurley, is ten years into his life sentence when the body of a young woman is fished out of the Grand Canal. Though detectives suspect they are dealing with a copycat, they turn to Will for help. He claims he has the information the police need, but will only give it to one person – the girl he was dating when he committed his horrific crimes. Alison Smith has spent the last decade abroad, putting her shattered life in Ireland far behind her. But when she gets a request from Dublin imploring her to help prevent another senseless murder, she is pulled back to face the past – and the man – she’s worked so hard to forget.’

Panic Room by Robert Goddard (March; Bantam Press)
‘High on a Cornish cliff sits a vast uninhabited mansion. Uninhabited except for Blake, a young woman of dubious background, secretive and alone, currently acting as housesitter. The house has a panic room. Cunningly concealed, steel lined, impregnable – and apparently closed from within. Even Blake doesn’t know it’s there. She’s too busy being on the run from life, from a story she thinks she’s escaped. But her remote existence is going to be invaded when people come looking the house’s owner, missing rogue pharma entrepreneur, Jack Harkness. Suddenly the whole world wants to know where his money has gone. Soon people are going to come knocking on the door, people with motives and secrets of their own, who will be asking Blake the sort of questions she can’t – or won’t – want to answer. And will the panic room ever give up its secrets?’

Let Me Lie by Clare Mackintosh (March; Sphere)
‘The police say it was suicide. Anna says it was murder. They’re both wrong. One year ago, Caroline Johnson chose to end her life brutally: a shocking suicide planned to match that of her husband just months before. Their daughter, Anna, has struggled to come to terms with their loss ever since. Now with a young baby of her own, Anna misses her mother more than ever and starts to ask questions about her parents’ deaths. But by digging up the past, is she putting her future in danger? Sometimes it’s safer to let things lie…’.

Come and Find Me by Sarah Hilary (March; Headline)
I always look forward to the new Marnie Rome novel! ‘On the surface, Lara Chorley and Ruth Hull have nothing in common, other than their infatuation with Michael Vokey. Each is writing to a sadistic inmate, sharing her secrets, whispering her worst fears, craving his attention. DI Marnie Rome understands obsession. She’s finding it hard to give up her own addiction to a dangerous man: her foster brother, Stephen Keele. She wasn’t able to save her parents from Stephen. She lives with that guilt every day. As the hunt for Vokey gathers pace, Marnie fears one of the women may have found him – and is about to pay the ultimate price.’

The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson (March; Michael Joseph)
‘Before Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir of the Reykjavik Police is forced into early retirement she is told to investigate a cold case of her choice, and she knows just the one. A young woman found dead on remote seaweed-covered rocks. A woman who was looking for asylum and found only a watery grave. Her death ruled a suicide after a cursory investigation. But Hulda soon realizes that there was something far darker to this case. This was not the only young woman to disappear around that time. And no one is telling the whole story. When her own force tries to put the brakes on the investigation Hulda has just days to discover the truth. Even if it means risking her own life…’.

The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox (March; Doubleday)
This was my Christmas read and it is absolutely superb! Even better than the fantastic Sirens so don’t miss it. ‘‘I usually experienced the presence of a dead body as an absence, but in this case, it felt like a black hole opening up in front of me’. Disconnected from his history and careless of his future, Detective Aidan Waits has resigned himself to the night shift. An endless cycle of meaningless emergency calls and lonely dead ends. Until he and his partner, Detective Inspector Peter ‘Sutty’ Sutcliffe, are summoned to The Palace, a vast disused hotel in the centre of a restless, simmering city. There they find the body of a man. He is dead. And he is smiling. The tags have been removed from the man’s clothes. His teeth filed down and replaced. Even his fingertips are not his own. Only a patch sewn into the inside of his trousers gives any indication as to who he was, and to the desperate last act of his life… But even as Waits puts together the pieces of this stranger’s life, someone is sifting through the shards of his own. When the mysterious fires, anonymous phone calls and outright threats escalate, he realises that a ghost from his own past haunts his every move. And to discover the smiling man’s identity, he must finally confront his own.’

The Lost by Mari Hannah (March; Orion)
A new series begins by one of my favourite authors! ”He was her child. The only one she’d ever have. It would kill her to learn that he was missing.’ Alex arrives home from holiday to find that her ten-year-old son Daniel has disappeared. It’s the first case together for Northumbria CID officers David Stone and Frankie Oliver. Stone has returned to his roots with fifteen years’ experience in the Met, whereas Oliver is local, a third generation copper with a lot to prove, and a secret that’s holding her back. But as the investigation unfolds, they realise the family’s betrayal goes deeper than anyone suspected. This isn’t just a missing persons case. Stone and Oliver are hunting a killer.’

The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton (March; Wildfire)
‘Juliette loves Nate. She will follow him anywhere. She’s even become a flight attendant for his airline, so she can keep a closer eye on him. They are meant to be. The fact that Nate broke up with her six months ago means nothing. Because Juliette has a plan to win him back. She is the perfect girlfriend. And she’ll make sure no one stops her from getting exactly what she wants. True love hurts, but Juliette knows it’s worth all the pain…’

The Bone Keeper by Luca Veste (ebook release March; Simon & Schuster)
‘What if the figure that haunted your nightmares as child, the myth of the man in the woods, was real? He’ll slice your flesh. Your bones he’ll keep. Twenty years ago, four teenagers went exploring in the local woods, trying to find to the supposed home of The Bone Keeper. Only three returned. Now, a woman is found wandering the streets of Liverpool, horrifically injured, claiming to have fled the Bone Keeper. Investigating officer DC Louise Henderson must convince sceptical colleagues that this urban myth might be flesh and blood. But when a body is unearthed in the woodland the woman has fled from, the case takes on a much darker tone. The disappeared have been found. And their killer is watching every move the police make.’

Turn a Blind Eye by Vicky Newham (April; HQ)
‘A dead girl. A wall of silence. DI Maya Rahman is running out of time. A headmistress is found strangled in her East London school, her death the result of a brutal and ritualistic act of violence. Found at the scene is a single piece of card, written upon which is an ancient Buddhist precept: I shall abstain from taking the ungiven. At first, DI Maya Rahman can’t help but hope this is a tragic but isolated murder. Then, the second body is found. Faced with a community steeped in secrets and prejudice, Maya must untangle the cryptic messages left at the crime scenes to solve the deadly riddle behind the murders – before the killer takes another victim.’

The Craftsman by Sharon Bolton (April; Trapeze)
‘Devoted father or merciless killer? His secrets are buried with him. Florence Lovelady’s career was made when she convicted coffin-maker Larry Glassbrook of a series of child murders 30 years ago. Like something from our worst nightmares the victims were buried…ALIVE. Larry confessed to the crimes; it was an open and shut case. But now he’s dead, and events from the past start to repeat themselves. Did she get it wrong all those years ago? Or is there something much darker at play?’

The Killing House by Claire McGowan (April; Headline)
The sixth and final Paula Maguire mystery… ‘When a puzzling missing persons’ case opens up in her hometown, forensic psychologist Paula Maguire can’t help but return once more. Renovations at an abandoned farm have uncovered two bodies: a man known to be an IRA member missing since the nineties, and a young girl whose identity remains a mystery. As Paula attempts to discover who the girl is and why no one is looking for her, an anonymous tip-off claims that her own long-lost mother is also buried on the farm. When another girl is kidnapped, Paula must find the person responsible before more lives are destroyed. But there are explosive secrets still to surface. And even Paula can’t predict that the investigation will strike at the heart of all she holds dear.’

Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough (May; HarperCollins)
‘‘Cross my heart and hope to die…’ Promises only last if you trust each other, but what if one of you is hiding something? A secret no one could ever guess. Someone is living a lie. Is it Lisa? Maybe it’s her daughter, Ava. Or could it be her best friend, Marilyn?’

The House Swap by Rebecca Fleet (May; Doubleday)
‘No one lives this way unless they want to hide something.’ When Caroline and Francis receive an offer to house swap, they jump at the chance for a week away from home. After the difficulties of the past few years, they’ve worked hard to rebuild their marriage for their son’s sake; now they want to reconnect as a couple. On arrival, they find a house that is stark and sinister in its emptiness – it’s hard to imagine what kind of person lives here. Then, gradually, Caroline begins to uncover some signs of life – signs of her life. The flowers in the bathroom or the music in the CD player might seem innocent to her husband but to her they are anything but. It seems the person they have swapped with is someone she used to know; someone she’s desperate to leave in her past. But that person is now in her home – and they want to make sure she’ll never forget…’.

The Outsider by Stephen King (May; Hodder & Stoughton)
‘When an eleven-year-old boy is found murdered, forensic evidence and reliable eyewitnesses undeniably point to the town’s popular Little League coach. But the jailed suspect, arrested in a public spectacle, has an alibi, and further research convinces Detective Ralph Anderson that the coach was indeed out of town. So how can he have been in two places at the same time?’

Snap by Belinda Baur (May; Bantam Press)
‘Suddenly it wasn’t just a game… Jack’s eleven and he’s in charge. Jack’s in charge, said his mother as she disappeared up the road to get help. I won’t be long. Now Jack and his two sisters wait on the hard shoulder in their stifling, broken-down car, bickering and whining. But their mother doesn’t come back. She never comes back. And after that long, hot summer’s day, nothing will ever be the same again. Three years later, a young woman called Catherine wakes to find a knife beside her bed, and a note that says: I could have killed you. Jack’s fifteen now and still in charge. Of his sisters, of supporting them all, of making sure nobody knows they’re alone in the house… And – quite suddenly – of finding out who murdered his mother.’

The Killing Habit by Mark Billingham (May; Little, Brown)
‘How do you catch a killer who is yet to kill? We all know the signs. Cruelty, lack of empathy, the killing of animals. Now, pets on suburban London streets are being stalked by a shadow, and it could just be the start. DI Tom Thorne knows the psychological profile of such offenders all too well, so when he is tasked with catching a notorious killer of domestic cats, he sees the chance to stop a series of homicides before they happen. Others are less convinced, so once more, Thorne relies on DI Nicola Tanner to help him solve the case, before the culprit starts hunting people. It’s a journey that brings them face to face with a killer who will tear their lives apart.’

The Moscow Cipher by Scott Mariani (May; Avon)
My favourite thriller hero Ben Hope returns! ‘BEN HOPE is one of the most celebrated action adventure heroes in British fiction and Scott Mariani is the author of numerous bestsellers. Join the ever-growing legion of readers who get breathless with anticipation when the countdown to the new Ben Hope thriller begins…’.

Don’t Make a Sound by David Jackson (May; Zaffre)
‘Meet the Bensons. A pleasant enough couple. They keep themselves to themselves. They wash their car, mow their lawn and pass the time of day with their neighbours. And they have a beautiful little girl called Daisy. There’s just one problem. Daisy doesn’t belong to the Bensons. They stole her. And now they’ve decided that Daisy needs a little brother or sister. D.S. Nathan Cody is about to face his darkest and most terrifying case yet…’.

Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall (May; Century)
‘This is a love story. This is a tragedy. This is a book about a break up so bad that when you put the pieces of the love story back together, what you get is MURDER… Mike knows that most of us travel through the world as one half of a whole, desperately searching for that missing person to make us complete. But he and Verity are different. They have found each other and nothing and no one will tear them apart. It doesn’t matter that Verity is marrying another man. You see, Verity and Mike play a game together, a secret game they call ‘the crave’, the aim being to demonstrate what they both know: that Verity needs Mike, and only Mike. Verity’s upcoming marriage is the biggest game she and Mike have ever played. And it’s for the highest stakes. Except this time in order for Mike and Verity to be together someone has to die…’.

The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings (May; HQ)
‘Some friendships are made to be broken. Cornwall, summer of 1986. If only… thinks Tamsyn, fifteen-years-old, with her binoculars trained on the perfect family in their perfect house… If only she lived at the Cliff House, towering above the sea, with its beautiful Art Deco swimming pool. If only Tamsyn’s life was as perfect as the owners’, the Davenports, with their effortless glamour and privilege. If only Tamsyn’s father hadn’t died and left her mother working as a cleaner, tidying up after the Davenport’s outrageous parties. If only Edie Davenport wanted to be her friend… If only Edie hadn’t met her brother, Jago, and liked him more… Amanda Jennings deftly weaves a deadly tale of loss and longing in this gripping and powerful psychological thriller which will haunt readers long after the final page is turned.’

We’re in for quite a year… Can someone send me an extra pair of eyeballs?

Happy New Year!

2018 science fiction – looking ahead (January to May)

Following on from yesterday’s post that pulled together some of the historical fiction goodies of the next five months, it’s now the turn of science fiction. As with the historical fiction, this isn’t a definitive list but these are the ones that have especially caught my eye – so far! They’re published between January and the end of May. I hope you find something here to tempt you. Crime and thrillers to follow!

Science fiction

Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds (January; Gollancz)
A new novel by Alastair Reynolds! This cannot come soon enough. ‘Featuring Inspector Dreyfus – one of Alastair Reynolds most popular characters – this is a fast paced SF crime story, combining a futuristic setting with a gripping tale of technology, revolution and revenge. One citizen died a fortnight ago. Two a week ago. Four died yesterday . . . and unless the cause can be found – and stopped – within the next four months, everyone will be dead. For the Prefects, the hunt for a silent, hidden killer is on… Alastair Reynolds has returned to the world of The Prefect for this stand-alone SF mystery in which no one is safe. The technological implants which connect every citizen to each other have become murder weapons, and no one knows who or what the killer is – or who the next targets will be. But their reach is spreading, and time is not on the Prefects’ side.’

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo (January; Headline)
‘Tom and Kate’s daughter turns six tomorrow, and they have to tell her about sleep. If you sleep unwatched, you could be Taken. If you are Taken, then watching won’t save you. Nothing saves you. Your knowledge. Your memories. Your dreams. If all you are is on the Feed, what will you become when the Feed goes down? For Tom and Kate, in the six years since the world collapsed, every day has been a fight for survival. And when their daughter, Bea, goes missing, they will question whether they can even trust each other anymore. The threat is closer than they realise…’

Iron Gold by Pierce Brown (January; Hodder & Stoughton)
‘Darrow was born a slave. He became a weapon. He ended centuries of Gold rule, broke the chains of an empire, and now he’s the hero of a brave new republic. But at terrible cost. At the edge of the solar system, the grandson of the emperor he murdered dreams of revenge. In his hidden fortress in the oceans of Venus, the Ash Lord lies in wait, plotting to crush the newborn democracy. And, at home, a young Red girl who’s lost everything to the Rising questions whether freedom was just another Gold lie. In a fearsome new world where Obsidian pirates roam the Belt, famine and genocide ravage Mars, and crime lords terrorise Luna, it’s time for Darrow and a cast of new characters from across the solar system to face down the chaos that revolution has unleashed.’

Spring Tide by Chris Beckett (January; Corvus)
‘Chris Beckett’s thought-provoking and wide-ranging collection of contemporary short stories is a joy to read, rich in detail and texture. From stories about first love, to a man who discovers a labyrinth beneath his house, to an angel left alone at the end of the universe, Beckett displays both incredible range and extraordinary subtlety as a writer. Every story is a world unto itself – each one beautifully realized and brilliantly imagined.’

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart TurtonThe Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (February; Raven Books)
I have had the pleasure of reading this already and it is absolutely fantastic! Hugely original, clever and mindblowing. A candidate for book of the year already. ”Somebody’s going to be murdered at the ball tonight. It won’t appear to be a murder and so the murderer won’t be caught. Rectify that injustice and I’ll show you the way out.’ It is meant to be a celebration but it ends in tragedy. As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed. But Evelyn will not die just once. Until Aiden – one of the guests summoned to Blackheath for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again. Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot. The only way to break this cycle is to identify the killer. But each time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is determined to prevent him ever escaping Blackheath…’

The Memory Chamber by Holly Cave (February; Quercus)
‘True death is a thing of the past. Now you can spend the rest of eternity re-living your happiest memories: that first kiss, falling in love, the birth of your children, enjoyed on loop for ever and ever. Isobel is a Heaven Architect, and she helps dying people create afterlives from these memories. So when she falls for Jarek, one of her terminal – and married – clients, she knows that while she cannot save him, she can create the most beautiful of heavens, just for him. But when Jarek’s wife is found dead, Isobel uncovers a darker side of the world she works within, and she can trust no one with what she finds…’

The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch (February; Headline)
I really enjoyed technothriller Tomorrow and Tomorrow and so this is one I’ll be looking out for. ‘1997 – When ex Navy Seal Patrick Mursult’s family are found murdered, he is the number one suspect. But NCIS Special Agent Shannon Moss isn’t convinced, particularly after Patrick apparently commits suicide. 2014 – Years after the brutal killings, while working undercover, Moss stumbles across a witness from the Mursult case who unwittingly tells her far more than she had at the time. Inspired by this retrospective progress, Moss determines to travel through time to a host of potential futures to track down the killer and close this cold case once and for all.’

Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell
‘The warship Trouble Dog was built and bred for calculating violence, yet following a brutal war, she finds herself disgusted by conflict and her role in a possible war crime. Seeking to atone, she joins the House of Reclamation, an organisation dedicated to rescuing ships in distress. But, stripped of her weaponry and emptied of her officers, she struggles in the new role she’s chosen for herself. When a ship goes missing in a disputed system, Trouble Dog and her new crew of misfits and loners, captained by Sal Konstanz, an ex-captain of a medical frigate who once fought against Trouble Dog, are assigned to investigate and save whoever they can. Meanwhile, light years away, intelligence officer Ashton Childe is tasked with locating and saving the poet, Ona Sudak, who was aboard the missing ship, whatever the cost. In order to do this, he must reach out to the only person he considers a friend, even if he s not sure she can be trusted. What Childe doesn’t know is that Sudak is not the person she appears to be. Quickly, what appears to be a straightforward rescue mission turns into something far more dangerous, as Trouble Dog, Konstanz and Childe, find themselves at the centre of a potential new conflict that could engulf not just mankind but the entire galaxy. If she is to survive and save her crew, Trouble Dog is going to have to remember how to fight.’

Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel (March; Michael Joseph)
I cannot wait for this – the third part of the Themis Files trilogy! ‘We always thought the biggest threat to humanity would come from the outside. We were wrong. As the human race picks up the pieces of destruction left behind, a new world order emerges. New alliances are formed. Old divisions are strengthened. And, with a power struggle fuelled by the threat of mutually assured destruction, nothing is certain. At a time when the world’s nations should have been coming together, they have never been more divided. With the human race teetering on the brink of total war, Rose, Vincent and Eva must choose sides. But doing the right thing might mean making the ultimate sacrifice.’

Zero Day by Ezekiel Boone (March; Gollancz)
I have thoroughly enjoyed this skin-crawling series so far and I can’t wait to see how it ends. ‘The world is on the brink of apocalypse. Zero Day has come. The only thing more terrifying than millions of spiders is the realization that those spiders work as one. But among the government, there is dissent: do we try to kill all of the spiders, or do we gamble on Professor Guyer’s theory that we need to kill only the queens? For President Stephanie Pilgrim, it’s an easy answer. She’s gone as far as she can-more than two dozen American cities hit with tactical nukes, the country torn asunder-and the only answer is to believe in Professor Guyer. Unfortunately, Ben Broussard and the military men who follow him don’t agree, and Pilgrim, Guyer, and the loyal members of the government have to flee, leaving the question: what’s more dangerous, the spiders or ourselves?’

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller (April; Orbit)
‘After the climate wars, a floating city was constructed in the Arctic Circle. Once a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, it has started to crumble under the weight of its own decay – crime and corruption have set in, a terrible new disease is coursing untreated through the population, and the contradictions of incredible wealth alongside deepest poverty are spawning unrest. Into this turmoil comes a strange new visitor – a woman accompanied by an orca and a chained polar bear. She disappears into the crowds looking for someone she lost thirty years ago, followed by whispers of a vanished people who could bond with animals. Her arrival draws together four people and sparks a chain of events that will lead to unprecedented acts of resistance.’

Before Mars by Emma Newman (April; Gollancz)
‘Hugo Award winner Emma Newman returns to the captivating Planetfall universe with a dark tale of a woman stationed on Mars who starts to have doubts about everything around her. After months of travel, Anna Kubrin finally arrives on Mars for her new job as a geologist and de facto artist in residence–and already she feels she is losing the connection with her husband and baby at home on Earth. In her room on the base, Anna finds a mysterious note, painted in her own hand, warning her not to trust the colony psychiatrist. A note she can’t remember painting. When she finds a footprint in a place that the colony AI claims has never been visited by humans, Anna begins to suspect that she is caught up in an elaborate corporate conspiracy. Or is she losing her grip on reality? Anna must find the truth, regardless of what horrors she might discover or what they might do to her mind.’

I Still Dream by James Smythe (April; Borough Press)
‘1997. 17-year-old Laura Bow has invented a rudimentary artificial intelligence, and named it Organon. At first it’s intended to be a sounding-board for her teenage frustrations, a surrogate best friend; but as she grows older, Organon grows with her. As the world becomes a very different place, technology changes the way we live, love and die; massive corporations develop rival intelligences to Laura’s, ones without safety barriers or morals; and Laura is forced to decide whether to share her creation with the world. If it falls into the wrong hands, she knows, its power could be abused. But what if Organon is the only thing that can stop humanity from hurting itself irreparably? I Still Dream is a powerful tale of love, loss and hope; a frightening, heartbreakingly human look at who we are now – and who we can be, if we only allow ourselves.’

Time Was by Ian McDonald (April; Tor Books)
‘Ian McDonald weaves a love story across an endless expanse with his science fiction novella Time Was. A love story stitched across time and war, shaped by the power of books, and ultimately destroyed by it. In the heart of World War II, Tom and Ben became lovers. Brought together by a secret project designed to hide British targets from German radar, the two founded a love that could not be revealed. When the project went wrong, Tom and Ben vanished into nothingness, presumed dead. Their bodies were never found. Now the two are lost in time, hunting each other across decades, leaving clues in books of poetry and trying to make their desperate timelines overlap.’

One Way by S.J. Morden (ebook in April; Gollancz)
The paperback is out in August but you might not want to wait… ‘A murder mystery set on the frozen red wastes of Mars. Eight astronauts. One killer. No way home. WE STAND AT THE DAWN OF A NEW ERA – Frank Kitteridge is serving life for murdering his son’s drug dealer. So when he’s offered a deal by Xenosystems Operations – the company that runs the prison – he takes it, even though it means swapping one life sentence for another. THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A BETTER TIME TO BE ALIVE – He’s been selected to help build the first permanent base on Mars. Unfortunately, his crewmates are just as guilty of their crimes as he is – and he’ll have to learn to trust them if they’re to succeed. THE FUTURE OF SPACE TRAVEL IS IN SAFE HANDS – As the convicts set to work on the frozen wastes of Mars, the accidents multiply. Until Frank begins to suspect they might not be accidents at all… XENOSYTEMS OPERATIONS: MAKING DREAMS A REALITY – There’s a murderer amongst them, and everyone’s a suspect.’

Xeelee: Redemption by Stephen Baxter (May; Gollancz)
Hooray! One of my very favourite authors. ‘Michael Poole finds himself in a very strange landscape… This is the centre of the Galaxy. And in a history without war with the humans, the Xeelee have had time to built an immense structure here. The Xeelee Belt has a radius ten thousand times Earth’s orbital distance. It is a light year in circumference. If it was set in the solar system it would be out in the Oort Cloud, among the comets – but circling the sun. If it was at rest it would have a surface area equivalent to about thirty billion Earths. But it is not at rest: it rotates at near lightspeed. And because of relativistic effects, distances are compressed for inhabitants of the Belt, and time drastically slowed. The purpose of the Belt is to preserve a community of Xeelee into the very far future, when they will be able to tap dark energy, a universe-spanning antigravity field, for their own purposes. But with time the Belt has attracted populations of lesser species, here for the immense surface area, the unending energy flows. Poole, Miriam and their party, having followed the Ghosts, must explore the artefact and survive encounters with its strange inhabitants – before Poole, at last, finds the Xeelee who led the destruction of Earth…’

The Soldier by Neal Asher (May; Macmillan)
‘A hidden corner of space is swarming with lethal alien technology, a danger to all sentient life. It’s guarded by Orlandine, who must keep it contained at any cost – as it has the power to destroy entire civilizations. She schemes from her state-of-the-art weapons station, with only an alien intelligence to share her vigil. But she doesn’t share everything with Dragon… Orlandine is hatching a plan to obliterate this technology, removing its threat forever. For some will do anything to exploit this ancient weaponry, created by a long-dead race called the Jain. This includes activating a Jain super-soldier, which may breach even Orlandine’s defences. Meanwhile, humanity and the alien prador empire keep a careful watch over this sector of space, as neither can allow the other to claim its power. However, things are about to change. The Jain might not be as dead as they seemed – and interstellar war is just a heartbeat away. The Soldier is the first novel in the Rise of the Jain series, by bestselling science fiction author Neal Asher.’

Hunted by G.X. Todd (May; Headline)
‘The birds are flying. The birds are flocking. The birds sense the red skies are coming. One man is driven by an inner voice that isn’t his – this Other is chewing at his sanity like a jackal with a bone and has one purpose. To find the voice hiding in the girl. She has no one to defend her now. But in an inn by the sea, a boy with no tongue and no voice gathers his warriors. Albus must find the girl, Lacey… before the Other does. And finish the work his sister Ruby began. Hunted is the second book in the acclaimed Voices series, where the battle between Good and Evil holds you in its vice-like grip.’

84K by Claire North (May; Orbit)
‘Theo Miller knows the value of human life – to the very last penny. Working in the Criminal Audit Office, he assesses each crime that crosses his desk and makes sure the correct debt to society is paid in full. But when his ex-lover is killed, it’s different. This is one death he can’t let become merely an entry on a balance sheet. Because when the richest in the world are getting away with murder, sometimes the numbers just don’t add up.’

Next up is crime fiction and thrillers! You can then have a rest….

2018 historical fiction – looking ahead (January to May)

One of the best things about seeing out an old year is embracing all the book goodies of the new. While I have yet to conquer completely my 2017 book mountain and fully intend to return to it (as well as to older books), it’s fun to see what’s in store. My 2018 book mountain is already high enough to gather snow and I’ve got a few of its titles under my belt. But, before I post my first review of a 2018 book, here is the first of two posts to feature just some of the books that I’m personally looking forward to over the next few months. This post focuses on the historical fiction (published between January and the end of May 2018) that has caught my eye. It is a very strong list indeed.

Historical Fiction

Nucleus by Rory ClementsNucleus by Rory Clements (January; Zaffre)
I have read this and I can confirm that it is every bit as clever and brilliant as Corpus! ‘June 1939. England is partying like there is no tomorrow, gas masks at the ready. In Cambridge the May Balls are played out with a frantic intensity – but the good times won’t last… In Europe, the Nazis have invaded Czechoslovakia, and in Germany he persecution of the Jews is now so widespread that desperate Jewish parents send their children to safety in Britain aboard the Kindertransport. Closer to home, the IRA’s S-Plan bombing campaign has resulted in more than 100 terrorist outrages around England. But perhaps the most far-reaching event of all goes largely unreported: in Germany, Otto Hahn has produced the first man-made fission and an atomic device is now a very real possibility. The Nazis set up the Uranverein group of physicists: its task is to build a superbomb. The German High Command is aware that British and US scientists are working on similar line. Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory is where the atom was split in 1932. Might the Cambridge men now win the race for a nuclear bomb? Hitler’s generals need to be sure they know all the Cavendish’s secrets. Only then will it be safe for Germany to wage war. When one of the Cavendish’s finest brains is murdered, Professor Tom Wilde is once more drawn into an intrigue from which there seems no escape. In a conspiracy that stretches from Cambridge to Berlin and from Washington DC to the west coast of Ireland, he faces deadly forces that threaten the fate of the world.’

Imperial Vengeance by Ian Ross (January; Head of Zeus)
I have also read this and it’s arguably the best of the series. ‘Aurelius Castus is one of the leading military commanders of an empire riven by civil war. As the emperor Constantine grows ever more ruthless in his pursuit of power, Castus fears that the world he knows is slipping away. On the eve of the war’s final campaign, Castus discovers that the emperor’s son Crispus aims to depose his father and restore the old ways of Rome. Castus must choose between honour and survival, and face a final confrontation with the most powerful man in the Roman world, the ruler he has sworn loyally to serve: the emperor Constantine himself.’

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (January; Harvill Secker)
‘One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid. As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on… and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course, on which they will learn that priceless things come at the greatest cost. Where will their ambitions lead? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess? In this spellbinding story of curiosity and obsession, Imogen Hermes Gowar has created an unforgettable jewel of a novel, filled to the brim with intelligence, heart and wit.’

Traitor by David Hingley (January; Allison & Busby)
Another title that I’ve read and enjoyed with a review to follow shortly. ‘February 1665. With winter passing, Mercia Blakewood is at last headed back to England from America, hoping to leave behind the shadow that death and heartache have cast. She expects a welcome from the King considering her earlier, mostly successful, mission at his behalf, but the reception is not exactly warm. Mercia faces more manipulation and must accept a clandestine and uncomfortable role at the heart of the royal court posing as a mistress to find a spy and traitor.’

Beautiful Star and Other Stories by Andrew Swanston (January, Dome Press)
My current read! I particularly enjoyed the story of an 11th-century flying monk. ‘History is brought alive by the people it affects, rather than those who created it. In Beautiful Star we meet Eilmer, a monk in 1010 with Icarus-like dreams; Charles I, hiding in 1651, and befriended by a small boy; the trial of Jane Wenham, witch of Walkern, seen through the eyes of her grand-daughter. This is a moving and affecting journey through time, bringing a new perspective to the defence of Corfe Castle, the battle of Waterloo, the siege of Toulon and, in the title story, the devastating dangers of the life of the sea in 1875.’

Rome's Sacred Flame by Robert FabbriRome’s Sacred Flame by Robert Fabbri (January; Corvus)
I loved this. A fine addition to one of my favourite series. ‘Rome, AD 63. Vespasian has been made Governor of Africa. Nero, Rome’s increasingly unpredictable Emperor, orders him to journey with his most trusted men to a far-flung empire in Africa to free 200 Roman citizens who have been enslaved by a desert kingdom. Vespasian arrives at the city to negotiate their emancipation, hoping to return to Rome a hero and find himself back in favour with Nero. But when Vespasian reaches the city, he discovers a slave population on the edge of revolt. With no army to keep the population in check, it isn’t long before tensions spill over into bloody chaos. Vespasian must escape the city with all 200 Roman citizens and make their way across a barren desert, battling thirst and exhaustion, with a hoard of rebels at their backs. It’s a desperate race for survival, with twists and turns aplenty. Meanwhile, back in Rome, Nero’s extravagance goes unchecked. All of Rome’s elite fear for their lives as Nero’s closest allies run amok. Can anyone stop the Emperor before Rome devours itself? And if Nero is to be toppled, who will be the one to put his head in the lion’s mouth?’

Scourge of Wolves by David Gilman (February; Head of Zeus)
‘Winter, 1361. After two decades of conflict, Edward III has finally agreed a treaty with the captive French King, John II. In return for his freedom, John has ceded vast tracts of territory to the English. But for five long years mercenary bands and belligerent lords have fought over the carcass of his kingdom. They will not give up their hard-won spoils to honour a defeated king’s promises. If the English want their prize, they’ll have to fight for it… Thomas Blackstone will have to fight for it. As he battles to enforce Edward’s claim, Thomas Blackstone will see his name blackened, his men slaughtered, his family hunted. He will be betrayed and, once again, he’ll face the might of the French army on the field. But this time there will be no English army at his back. He’ll face the French alone.’

The Coffin Path by Katherine ClementsThe Coffin Path by Katherine Clements (February; Headline Review)
I read this thoroughly creepy tale just before Christmas – a review’s on the way. ‘Maybe you’ve heard tales about Scarcross Hall, the house on the old coffin path that winds from village to moor top. They say there’s something up here, something evil. Mercy Booth isn’t afraid. The moors and Scarcross are her home and lifeblood. But, beneath her certainty, small things are beginning to trouble her. Three ancient coins missing from her father’s study, the shadowy figure out by the gatepost, an unshakeable sense that someone is watching. When a stranger appears seeking work, Mercy reluctantly takes him in. As their stories entwine, this man will change everything. She just can’t see it yet.’

Pilgrim’s War by Michael Jecks (February; Simon & Schuster)
‘France 1096. Crowds gather in a square in Sens to hear the man known as the Hermit speak. He talks of a pilgrimage to the city of Jerusalem, a pilgrimage filled with promises for Christian soldiers who march with him. In Jerusalem all sinners will be forgiven and the pious rewarded with great riches. Sybille’s husband is a reckless man and easily swayed by the Hermit’s words. Even knowing the jeopardy and risk of the road ahead Sybille has no choice but to follow her husband and join the march. Fulk, a young blacksmith, is hungry for adventure. The pilgrimage is exactly the excitement he’s craving. For his brother Odo the march is far more serious and sparks a dangerous fanaticism even Fulk doesn’t see coming. Jeanne and Guillemette have been treated badly by the men in their life but this is their chance for redemption and a bright future. But life on the road for two unattached women is perilous. On the path to Jerusalem right and wrong, love and hate, sins and virtues become blurred. Who will make it there alive? And will the sacrifice it takes to get there be worth the price they will pay?’

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin (February; Hodder & Stoughton)
The Wicked Cometh will take readers on a heart-racing journey through backstreets swathed with fog to richly curtained, brightly lit country houses; from the libraries and colleges of gentlemen, to sawdust-strewn gin palaces where ne’er-do-wells drink and scheme, all told through the eyes of a heroine with nothing to lose. The year is 1831. Down the murky alleyways of London, acts of unspeakable wickedness are taking place and no one is willing to speak out on behalf of the city’s vulnerable poor as they disappear from the streets.Out of these shadows comes Hester White, a bright young woman who is desperate to escape the slums by any means possible.When Hester is thrust into the world of the aristocratic Brock family, she leaps at the chance to improve her station in life under the tutelage of the fiercely intelligent and mysterious Rebekah Brock. But whispers from her past slowly begin to poison her new life and both she and Rebekah are lured into the most sinister of investigations.Hester and Rebekah find themselves crossing every boundary they’ve ever known in pursuit of truth, redemption and passion. But their trust in each other will be tested as a web of deceit begins to unspool, dragging them into the blackest heart of a city where something more depraved than either of them could ever imagine is lurking.’

The Prince and the Whitechapel Murders by Saul David (February; Hodder & Stoughton)
‘London 1888: George ‘Zulu’ Hart is the mixed-race illegitimate son of a Dublin actress and (he suspects) the Duke of Cambridge, commander-in-chief of the army. George has fought his way through wars in Africa and Afghanistan, won the VC and married his sweetheart, but he’s also a gambler, short of money and in no position to turn down the job of ‘minder’ to Prince Albert Victor, second in line to the throne. George is to befriend the charming young cavalry officer and keep him out of trouble – no easy task, given that the Prince is a known target for Irish nationalist assassins, while his secret sexual orientation leaves him open to blackmail and scandal. To make matters worse, the Prince is also in the habit of heading out late at night to sample the dubious pleasures of the East End. Both outsiders in their different ways, perhaps the two men have more in common than they know, but when a series of horrible murders begins in Whitechapel, on just the nights the Prince has been there, George is drawn into an investigation which forces him to confront the unthinkable… A brilliant standalone adventure based on detailed research, this is a thrilling novel of suspense and a fascinating new twist on the Jack the Ripper story.’

Templar Silks by Elizabeth Chadwick (March; Sphere)
A new Elizabeth Chadwick novel is something to celebrate and here she returns to the Greatest Knight. ‘England, 1219: Lying on his deathbed, William Marshal, England’s greatest knight, sends a trusted servant to bring to him the silk Templar burial shrouds that returned with him from the Holy Land thirty years ago. It is time to fulfil his vow to the Templars and become a monk of their order for eternity. As he waits for the shrouds’ return, he looks back upon his long-ago pilgrimage with his brother Ancel, and the sacred mission entrusted to them – to bear the cloak of their dead young lord to Jerusalem and lay it on Christ’s tomb in the church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jerusalem, 1183: In the holiest of all cities, the brothers become embroiled in the deadly politics, devious scheming and lusts of the powerful men and women who rule the kingdom. Entangled with the dangerous, mercurial Paschia de Riveri, concubine of the highest churchman in the land, William sets on a path so perilous that there seems no way back for him, or for his brother. Both will pay a terrible price and their only chance to see home again will be dependent on the Templar shrouds.’

Caligula by Simon Turney (March; Orion)
I read this over Christmas and it is a triumph! Its portrait of Caligula, which is wholly original and unusual, gave me nightmares… ‘Rome 37AD. The emperor is dying. No-one knows how long he has left. The power struggle has begun. When the ailing Tiberius thrusts Caligula’s family into the imperial succession in a bid to restore order, he will change the fate of the empire and create one of history’s most infamous tyrants, Caligula. But was Caligula really a monster? Forget everything you think you know. Let Livilla, Caligula’s youngest sister and confidante, tell you what really happened. How her quiet, caring brother became the most powerful man on earth. And how, with lies, murder and betrayal, Rome was changed for ever…’

Kin by Snorri Kristjansson (March; Jo Fletcher Books)
‘He can deny it all he likes, but everyone knows Viking warlord Unnthor Reginsson brought home a great chest of gold when he retired from the longboats and settled down with Hildigunnur in a remote valley. Now, in the summer of 970, adopted daughter Helga is awaiting the arrival of her unknown siblings: dark, dangerous Karl, lithe, clever Jorunn, gentle Aslak, henpecked by his shrewish wife, and the giant Bjorn, made bitter by Volund, his idiot son. And they’re coming with darkness in their hearts. The siblings gather, bad blood simmers and old feuds resurface as Unnthor’s heirs make their moves on the old man’s treasure – until one morning Helga is awakened by screams. Blood has been shed: kin has been slain. No one confesses, but all the clues point to one person – who cannot possibly be the murderer, at least in Helga’s eyes. But if she’s going to save the innocent from the axe and prevent more bloodshed, she’s got to solve the mystery – fast…’

The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor (March; Constable)
I believe that this novel closes the investigations of Gordianus the Finder, something that makes me very sad indeed. I’ve been reading and enjoying this fine series for years. ‘Julius Caesar has been appointed dictator for life by the Roman Senate. Having pardoned his remaining enemies and rewarded his friends, Caesar is now preparing to leave Rome with his army to fight the Parthian Empire. Gordianus the Finder, after decades of investigating crimes and murders involving the powerful, has set aside enough that he’s been raised to the Equestrian rank and has firmly and finally retired. On the morning of March 10th, though, he’s first summoned to meet with Cicero and then with Caesar himself. Both have the same request of Gordianus – keep your ear to the ground, ask around, and find out if there are any conspiracies against Caesar’s life. Caesar, however, has one other important matter to discuss. Gordianus’s adopted son Meto has long been one of Caesar’s closest confidants. To honor Meto, Caesar is going to make his father Gordianus a Senator when he attends the next session on the 15th of March. With only four days left before he’s made a Senator, Gordianus must dust off his old skills and see what conspiracy against Julius Caesar, if any, he can uncover. Because the Ides of March are approaching…’

The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom (March; Zaffre)
One of my favourite authors has here created that very rare thing – a Roman thriller. Everything takes place within one 24-hour period. It is brilliant! ‘A lone figure stands silhouetted atop the Mausoleum of Hadrian. Behind him, the sun is setting over the centre of the known world. Far below, the river is in full flood. The City of Rome lies spread out before him on the far bank. Footsteps pound up the stairs. He’s been set up. An enemy is closing in; he is cornered. He jumps. Bruised and battered, he crawls out of the raging river. He is alone and unarmed, without money or friends, trapped in a deadly conspiracy at the heart of the Empire. The City Watch has orders to take him alive; other, more sinister, forces want him dead. As the day dies, he realises he has only 24 hours to expose the conspirators, and save the leader of the world. If the Emperor dies, chaos and violence will ensue. If the Emperor dies, every single person he loves will die. He must run, bluff, hide and fight his way across the Seven Hills. He must reach the Colosseum, and the Emperor. He must make it to The Last Hour.’

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor (April; HarperCollins)
‘The Great Fire has ravaged London, wreaking destruction and devastation wherever its flames spread. Now, guided by the incorruptible Fire Court, the city is slowly rebuilding, but times are volatile and danger is only ever a heartbeat away. James Marwood, son of a traitor, is thrust into this treacherous environment when his ailing father claims to have stumbled upon a murdered woman – in the very place where the Fire Court sits. Then his father is run down and killed. Accident? Or another murder…? Determined to uncover the truth, Marwood turns to the one person he can trust – Cat Lovett, the daughter of a despised regicide. Marwood has helped her in the past. Now it’s her turn to help him. But then comes a third death… and Marwood and Cat are forced to confront a vicious and increasingly desperate killer whose actions threaten the future of the city itself.’

The Blood by ES Thomson (April; Constable)
I knew the smell of death well enough. But here the sweetness of decay was tainted with something else, something new and different. It was a curious, moist smell; a smell that spoke of the ooze and slap of water, of gurgling wet spaces and the sticky, yielding mud of low-tide… Summoned to the riverside by the desperate, scribbled note of an old friend, Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain find themselves on board the seamen’s floating hospital, an old hulk known only as The Blood, where prejudice, ambition and murder seethe beneath a veneer of medical respectability. On shore, a young woman, a known prostitute, is found drowned in a derelict boatyard. A man leaps to his death into the Thames, driven mad by poison and fear. The events are linked – but how? Courting danger in the opium dens and brothels of the waterfront, certain that the Blood lies at the heart of the puzzle, Jem and Will embark on a quest to uncover the truth. In a hunt that takes them from the dissecting tables of a private anatomy school to the squalor of the dock-side mortuary, they find themselves involved in a dark and terrible mystery.’

Pandora’s Boy by Lindsey Davis (April; Hodder & Stoughton)
‘Private investigator Flavia Albia is always drawn to an intriguing puzzle – even if it is put to her by her new husband’s hostile ex-wife. On the Quirinal Hill, a young girl named Clodia has died, apparently poisoned with a love potion. Only one person could have supplied such a thing: a local witch who goes by the name of Pandora, whose trade in herbal beauty products is hiding something far more sinister. The supposedly sweet air of the Quirinal is masking the stench of loose morality, casual betrayal and even gangland conflict and, when a friend of her own is murdered, Albia determines to expose as much of this local sickness as she can – beginning with the truth about Clodia’s death.’

Retribution by Anthony Riches (April; Hodder & Stoughton)
‘The author of the bestselling Empire series reaches the action-filled climax of his epic story of the uprising of the Batavi in AD 69. Victory is in sight for Kivilaz and his Batavi army. The Roman army clings desperately to its remaining fortresses along the Rhine, its legions riven by dissent and mutiny, and once-loyal allies of Rome are beginning to imagine the unimaginable: freedom from the rulers who have dominated them since the time of Caesar. The four centurions – two Batavi and two Roman, men who were once comrades in arms – must find their destiny in a maze of loyalties and threats, as the blood tide of war ebbs and flows across Germania and Gaul. For Rome does not give up its territory lightly. And a new emperor knows that he cannot tolerate any threat to his undisputed power. It can only be a matter of time before Vespasian sends his legions north to exact the empire’s retribution.’

Mad Blood Stirring by Simon Mayo (April; Doubleday)
‘On the eve of the year 1815, the American sailors of the Eagle finally arrive at Dartmoor prison; bedraggled, exhausted but burning with hope. They’ve only had one thing to sustain them – a snatched whisper overheard along the way. The war is over. Joe Hill thought he’d left the war outside these walls but it’s quickly clear that there’s a different type of fight to be had within. The seven prison blocks surrounding him have been segregated; six white and one black. As his voice rings out across the courtyard, announcing the peace, the redcoat guards bristle and the inmates stir. The powder keg was already fixed to blow and Joe has just lit the fuse. Elizabeth Shortland, wife of the Governor looks down at the swirling crowd from the window of her own personal prison. The peace means the end is near, that she needn’t be here for ever. But suddenly, she cannot bear the thought of leaving. Inspired by a true story, Mad Blood tells of a few frantic months in the suffocating atmosphere of a prison awaiting liberation. It is a story of hope and freedom, of loss and suffering. It is a story about how sometimes, in our darkest hour, it can be the most unlikely of things that see us through.’

Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison WeirSix Tudor Queens III: Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir (May; Headline Review)
As soon as this arrived I read it and it is marvellous. This is the novel of the series I’ve been most looking forward to and it did not disappoint. ‘Eleven days after the death of Anne Boleyn, Jane is dressing for her wedding to the King. She has witnessed at first hand how courtly play can quickly turn to danger and knows she must bear a son… or face ruin. This new Queen must therefore step out from the shadows cast by Katherine and Anne – in doing so, can she expose a gentler side to the brutal King? Jane Seymour, the third of Henry’s queens. Acclaimed, bestselling historian Alison Weir draws on new research for her captivating novel, which paints a compelling portrait of Jane and casts fresh light on both traditional and modern perceptions of her. Jane was driven by the strength of her faith and a belief that she might do some good in a wicked world. History tells us how she died. This spellbinding novel explores the life she lived.’

Clash of Empires by Ben Kane (May; Orion)
‘It is the turn of the 3rd century BC. Hannibal has just been defeated, and Rome now turns its eyes on Greece. The Roman legion was pitted against the Greek phalanx in the ultimate ancient military showdown as Rome stretched its military muscles into the birthplace of civilisation. In Kane’s trademark style, the novel will follow both soldiers on the ground, as well as the great political figures of the day. In three tumultuous years, Greece, birthplace of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and Alexander of Macedon, whose soldiers saw off the invading Persians hordes at Thermopylae, whose phalanxes made the world tremble, fell beneath the inexorable Roman legions’ march. This victory cemented the birth of the mightiest empire that has ever existed.’

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse (May; Mantle)
‘Bringing sixteenth-century Languedoc vividly to life, Kate Mosse’s The Burning Chambers is a gripping story of love and betrayal, mysteries and secrets; of war and adventure, conspiracies and divided loyalties… Carcassonne 1562: Nineteen-year-old Minou Joubert receives an anonymous letter at her father’s bookshop. Sealed with a distinctive family crest, it contains just five words: SHE KNOWS THAT YOU LIVE. But before Minou can decipher the mysterious message, a chance encounter with a young Huguenot convert, Piet Reydon, changes her destiny forever. For Piet has a dangerous mission of his own, and he will need Minou’s help if he is to get out of La Cité alive. Toulouse: As the religious divide deepens in the Midi, and old friends become enemies, Minou and Piet both find themselves trapped in Toulouse, facing new dangers as sectarian tensions ignite across the city, the battle-lines are drawn in blood and the conspiracy darkens further. Meanwhile, as a long-hidden document threatens to resurface, the mistress of Puivert is obsessed with uncovering its secret and strengthening her power…’

The Encircling Sea by Adrian Goldsworthy (May; Head of Zeus)
‘AD 100: Flavius Ferox, Briton and Roman centurion, is finding it hard to keep the peace. Based at Vindolanda – an army fort on the northern frontier of Britannia and the entire Roman world – he feels the eyes of his enemies on him at all hours. Ambitious leaders sense a chance to carve out empires of their own. While men nearer at hand speak in whispers of war and the destruction of Rome. And out at sea, ships of pirates and deserters restlessly wait for the time to launch their attack on the empire’s land.’

The Falcon of Sparta by Conn Iggulden (May; Michael Joseph)
‘In the Ancient World, one army was feared above all others. This is their story. When Cyrus, brother to the Great King of Persia, attempts to overthrow his reckless sibling, he employs a Greek mercenary army of 10,000 soldiers. When this army becomes stranded as a result of the unexpected death of Cyrus, and then witnesses the treacherous murder of its entire officer corps, despair overtakes them. One man, Xenophon, rallies the Greeks. As he attempts to lead them to freedom across 1,500 miles of hostile territory seething with adversaries, 10,000 men set off on the long way home.’

This list is by no means exhaustive and I’m looking forward to some surprises but it’s certainly more than enough to keep me very happily reading indeed! I hope you find something here to tempt you.

Next up will be science fiction and crime thrillers…

Book review of 2017

A year ago today I posted my Book review of 2016 and here we are again – time flies when the days are filled with books. So far this year I have read 165 books, far fewer than last year but the total doesn’t include a fair few novels that I read as part of my happy duties as one of the judges for the HWA Endeavour Ink Gold Crown award. I’m also so pleased to have continued my historical fiction roundups for the Sunday Express. There’ll be another on the way in January.

I must thank the wonderful publishers and their lovely people for keeping my habit fed over the last year. I am so grateful and can’t thank you enough. Every week feels like Christmas to me and that is a fabulous thing. Thanks to all of you for taking the time and trouble to read my reviews. It’s so good to share the love of books and reading with you (with chocolate and wine, ideally).

While reading my book review of 2016, I realised that I said I would be doing author spotlights during 2017 and I never did that and I’m cross with myself because it’s such a good idea! I read lots of series of novels, especially historical and some science fiction, and each new addition to those series is such a highlight of my reading year. I’d like to talk more about that in 2018. I also need to read more! I’m asking for extra eyeballs for Christmas. Like most reviewers, I lament the books I haven’t been able to read yet. They surround me and they look at me with their sad and neglected eyes. But, just because 2016 is ending, it doesn’t mean that’s the end of 2016’s books. A fair number stay on my TBR pile and I will read them. As well as books older than that.

So on to my books of the year! These are drawn from books published in 2017 (quite a bunch of which seemed to be about Nero). I’ve read some corking 2018 titles already but they belong on next year’s list. I must mention one of them here though – The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turtin (published by Raven Books on 8 February 2018). Do look out for this book. It’s every bit as brilliant as people are saying. My review will be up in January.

Top reads

I was aiming for 15 but had to go for 20 books and they’re presented here in no particular order, covering all of the genres I read, with the exception of the top spot which belongs to my favourite books of 2017, and the runner up which is just before it. Now if only I could decide…

Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey
This is the seventh novel in the superb Expanse series and once more it takes us into new territory. Persepolis Rising is a superb novel, an immersive reading experience, particularly for those with any kind of affection for Holden and his crew. I find it incredible that the two authors who combine to make James S.A. Corey can maintain this momentum and originality year after year but they do. Likewise the quality of the writing is always tremendously high. Persepolis Rising is one of the very best of the series. It marks a new beginning in some ways, due to the years that have passed, but it points clearly ahead and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Full review.

The Vanishing Box by Elly GriffithsThe Vanishing Box by Elly Griffiths
This might be the fourth and latest novel in the Stephens and Mephisto series but it was my first and I instantly fell in love with it. I bought the others straight away and now I am thoroughly enjoying catching up. In some ways this novel could be described as cosy crime and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s no criticism. I love this sort of mystery and its setting in a bygone time. It reminds me in some ways of an Agatha Christie detective novel but that’s largely because of the period in which it’s set. Just as police technology was very different in those days, the police force is also as affected by manners and social mores as the rest of society, and this is especially seen in the character of DS Emma Holmes. I really, really liked Emma. But there is something so wonderfully old-fashioned about her character and that of Edgar Stephens – or, not so much old-fashioned, as from a different time. I love it. Elly Griffiths writes beautifully and the characters she creates are full of colour and life. I had no desire to put The Vanishing Box down and read in two sittings. Full review.

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen KingSleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King
Even though Stephen King had a co-author (his son) for Sleeping Beauties, this marvellous book really appealed to me and it reminded me of classic King – the American small town stricken down by something otherworldly and horrifying. And also the impact of such extraordinary events on the ordinary. Often the most terrifying elements of such a novel aren’t the supernatural, ghostly or monstrous, but the men and women whose base characteristics thrive when normality breaks down. This is what we get here and I loved it. Sleeping Beauties is a tale of two worlds – the sleeping world of the women and the waking world of the men and it is the society of men that breaks down almost completely. That doesn’t mean that all of the men are to be hated. Most are just frightened and lonely. Others are doing the best they can in awful circumstances. Sleeping Beauties is rich in people’s lives. There are so many strands to follow. Some end in tragedy while others are almost comical and grotesque. But at its heart is the devastating impact of a world of sleeping women. This affects people in different ways but it strikes at the core of them all, whether they are male or female. And that is just one of the many reasons why Sleeping Beauties feels like a significant book – Stephen and Owen King make us take a good look at the human condition. Full review.

The Zealot's Bones by DM MarkThe Zealot’s Bones by D.M. Mark
David Mark is familiar to many as the author of the McAvoy contemporary police detective series but in The Zealot’s Bones he picks up the reins of a historical murder mystery for the first time – and I am so glad he did. The Zealot’s Bones is nothing short of brilliant and is one of the finest historical novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year. The writing is superb. This is a dark, gruesome and twisted tale and through it walk the damned and the afflicted. And David Mark brings both the locations and characters to life with the most gorgeously vivid prose. The dialogue is wonderful and often extremely witty as we know well that what a character says need not be at all what he or she means. This is an age of manners and etiquette and sometimes not even murder is allowed to interfere with that. There are some fantastic characters in The Zealot’s Bones, whether they’re good or evil. The murders are horrendous, their victims utterly pitiful and the murderer an abomination. This is gruesome stuff and I found it impossible to tear my eyes away. And all is set against the most perfectly described backdrops of a city devastated by death and mourning and a wonderfully creepy country house, likewise caught in the grip of something dreadful and disturbing. Full review.

Munich by Robert HarrisMunich by Robert Harris
With Munich, Robert Harris proves yet again, as if more proof were needed, that he is one of the finest writers of historical and contemporary thrillers you can read, if not the very best. The ingenious Conclave was my favourite novel of 2016, Dictator (completing Harris’s superb series about Cicero) was one of my top three books of 2015, and Pompeii is, I think, my favourite historical novel of all time. As before, with Munich Harris doesn’t go for the obvious. Instead of focusing on 1939 and the actual outbreak of war he takes us to the previous year and into the painfully tense conference room of Munich, via Chamberlain’s flight from London and Hitler’s train journey from Berlin. This is reminiscent of the worried claustrophobia of Conclave – the idea that something is going on behind closed doors that will affect the whole world and yet, for the moment, is utterly secret and confined. There is a ritual to the drama. It’s quietly spoken. There is etiquette. And yet this is all skin deep, as we are reminded by the unwelcome presence in Munich of the despised Czechoslovakian representatives. The brutality of the Nazi regime lurks in dark corners and it oppresses the mood.

Munich is a relatively short novel and not a page of it is wasted. History tells us how all this was to turn out but this in no way damages the impact of the book, which is increasingly tense and dramatic as you realise how differently events could have unfolded. It also reminds us of history’s warning – and relevance – to the present day. There is a play-like feel to the novel’s structure as we move from room to room, or from vehicle to vehicle. Its dialogue is of paramount importance. Every uttered word must be studied for its hidden intention – the world’s future is at stake. Full review.

Treason's Spring by Robert WiltonTreason’s Spring by Robert Wilton
It is 1792 and the age of the mob has brought violence and chaos to the streets of Paris, in particular the Place de la Révolution where Madame Guillotine holds centre stage. These are the early days of The Terror, the King and Queen of France are only recently imprisoned and the National Convention, the revolutionary ruling body of France, doesn’t quite know what to do with them. As the Ministers juggle for power and safety, their wives play the society game – politics now plays out almost as much in the drawing rooms and ballrooms of the fashionable as in the governmental hall of the Tuileries Palace. Intrigue competes with flirtation, and spies hide in plain sight. And behind the glamour and wit, there lurks the dirty reality of revolution – the torturer, the murderer, the joy of the hunt. Treason’s Spring is an enormous achievement. It is immensely clever, controlled and ambitious and it succeeds in all of its aims. I was engrossed. I admired its intellectual brilliance while also being moved to tears by the horror and sadness of events. Personal tragedies were played out time and time again during The Terror and this novel captures so well the fear and uncertainty of these bloody, chaotic months. Revolutionary Paris is itself brought to life. This opening novel suggests that we are embarking on a trilogy of significance. Full review.

A Column of Fire by Ken FollettA Column of Fire by Ken Follett
How I have longed for this book, the new Kingsbridge novel – mostly set during the reign of Elizabeth I. There is nothing about A Column of Fire that isn’t a joy to read. Huge ideas and swathes of history are covered, including the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day, the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots, the Spanish Armada, but all in the most accessible yet immersive fashion. There are many characters but they all seem individual and each has a fascinating part to play in the bigger picture. Ultimately this is a novel about love and hate and trying to find the middle ground, the path of tolerance and peace. It isn’t easy to find and the characters here often fail but following Ned and Marjory through these years is a wonderful thing to do. These Kingsbridge novels don’t come along too often and when they do they’re very special indeed. Arguably, A Column of Fire is as fine an achievement as Pillars of the Earth, I certainly loved it as much. Full review.

All the Wicked Girls by Chris WhitakerAll the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker
All the Wicked Girls is quite simply a work of genius. And that’s no exaggeration. Its story is astonishing and complex and it is driven as much by heart as it is by puzzles and surprises. Tall Oaks, Chris Whitaker’s previous novel, is one of my favourite novels of recent years but, incredible as it seems, All the Wicked Girls leaves it behind. But what drives All the Wicked Girls beyond its wonderful plot and its fantastically atmospheric sense of place, is its people. In Tall Oaks I fell for Manny (like everyone else!) but here we have Noah and Purv and it’s fair to say that I can think of no other characters in recent years that I have fallen for quite as hard as this. Just thinking about Noah, his courage, wisdom, kindness and deep heart, makes me want to weep. This is a novel that takes us into some very dark places. The melancholy of Grace goes far deeper than the storm that hovers over it. It is disturbing at times, there is no doubt of that, but it is also filled with a humanity despite its subject and I was held spellbound. There are so many reasons to read All the Wicked Girls but if I had to give you just one – well, two reasons – it would be to read it for Noah and Purv. Full review.

Eagles in the Storm by Ben KaneEagles in the Storm by Ben Kane
Eagles in the Storm completes Ben Kane’s magnificent trilogy on the the Battle of Teutoburg Forest and its bloody aftermath. It’s been six years since Rome suffered its most infamous defeat in AD 9. Three legions were destroyed and their eagles stolen by German tribes united under the leadership of Arminius, a man who once served Rome. The loss of the eagles and the betrayal by Arminius continue to grieve Rome, so much so that the few survivors of the defeat are no longer allowed within the walls of Rome. Senior Centurion Lucius Cominius Tullus didn’t just survive the battle, he saved more Roman lives than anyone else, and now he is doing what he can to atone for the shame he continues to bear. Tullus has taken the fight back to the tribes, he helped to restore one of the lost eagles. But it wasn’t his. Although Tullus is now an important member of the Fifth legion, promoted higher and higher, and worships its eagle, it’s the eagle of the Eighteenth that Tullus is determined to kneel before once again. This is brilliant storytelling from an author who is steeped in the history of the Romans, and he fills it with all the details, military and otherwise, you need to make it feel real.This has been a wonderful trilogy – one of the very best that I’ve read. Although I’m sorry it’s finished I can’t be sorry about the way in which it’s been finished – it concludes perfectly. Full review.

The Outcasts of Time by Ian MortimerThe Outcasts of Time by Ian Mortimer
It is December 1348 and the Black Death ravages England’s terror-stricken population. The bodies of men, women and children fill great death pits in the towns and cities while more corpses rot where they fell. Brothers John and William are travelling by foot to Exeter but they see the work of pestilence everywhere and know it is only a matter of time before they too are stricken. And when the inevitable happens, they seek to make peace with God in a sacred place. But instead they are made an offer: they can either return home to live out the six days remaining to them or they will experience each of those six days, 99 years apart from the one before. They would move through the centuries with all sign of the plague removed. But at the end of those six days they will face the Final Judgement. And so begins an extraordinary journey for two men whose lives have been lived firmly within the medieval world of the mid 14th century. The Outcasts of Time is an astonishing novel, not least because it combines a fascinating, irresistible Faustian tale with a clever scrutiny of the transition from the medieval to modern worlds as it would have affected an unexceptional everyman from the 14th century. It’s a personal story and, as such, it is moving, heartfelt and often tragic. But it also tells the broader tale of humanity’s progress (or lack of it) through 700 years. This marvellous novel engages the heart and mind and, when finished, it’s not one you want to forget. Full review.

Now We Are Dead by Stuart MacBrideNow We Are Dead by Stuart MacBride
Now We Are Dead is a stand alone novel featuring the one and only Roberta Steel. Now if that isn’t enough to grab your attention, I don’t know what will. If you’ve met Roberta Steel before then you know what to expect from Now We Are Dead and that’s just what you get, although totally undiluted because there’s no Logan McRae here except in wee walk on spots. This is Roberta Steel loud and proud and she is wicked! But in such a good way. Her relationship with her sorry team of PCs is utterly fantastic. The dialogue is so fabulous I could eat it all up and I laughed and laughed while still remembering that really I should be shocked by Roberta’s outrageous behaviour. I loved the other characters, especially Tufty, and even Owen. Poor Owen. The book is packed full of bits to treasure, although I think the daily vote for swear word of the day is chief among them, or how Steel likes to call on her Native American Chief spirit guide during police interrogations – Big Chief Lionel Goldberg. But the tender side to Roberta is here, too, hidden though it may be, and that reflects some of the pitiable and awful crimes that she must investigate. These stay on the mind and, we know, they’re on Roberta’s mind as well. How could they not be? Read some of this and weep. Stuart MacBride with every novel reaffirms my conviction that he is the best crime writer out there today. The mix of humour and tragedy, the finding of humour in tragedy and vice versa, the alluring Scottishness of it all, the wickedness of Roberta Steel and the charm and strangeness of her underlings and overlings, and the evil of what she must confront, is irresistible. Full review.

The Collapsing Empire by John ScalziThe Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
Mankind has spread out from Earth, dispersed by the Flow, extra-dimensional pathways that move between planets, connecting worlds. The settlers have no say in which planets will be connected. They are randomly ‘selected’ and at great distances from one another. They are also largely uninhabitable, with humans having to live in sealed habitats underground, relying on other planets along the Flow for resources. As a result, the Interdependency has developed. The Flow might seem stable and constant but it isn’t. Long ago Earth was lost when the Flow shifted. And now the signs indicate that the Flow might be about to undergo an even more drastic change, a change that could throw each colony along its course into an isolation that would mean its death. The story is absolutely fantastic and fully lives up to its glorious premise. Wormholes, conspiracies, colony planets, angry nobles, battles, pirates, impending apocalypse, sin and rage – all of these are promised and many more and each is delivered. I love John Scalzi’s writing as much as I love his imagination – the prose is so easy to get along with, so descriptive and perceptive, but, above all, it is so witty! There are some great lines in these pages and they are delivered by some enormous personalities. And so the superb worldbuilding meets its match in the quality of the dialogue. Full review.

Glory of Rome by Douglas JacksonGlory of Rome by Douglas Jackson
It is 77 AD and life is going well for Hero of Rome, Gaius Valerius Verrens. Valerius is a prosperous landowner, living with his much loved wife and son in their villa a few miles from Rome’s city walls. But Valerius has a dangerous enemy in Domitian, Vespasian’s younger son. When Domitian goes after Valerius’ little son, Valerius knows he must remove his family from Rome. The opportunity comes from Vespasian who orders Valerius to Britannia where he will serve as the emperor’s legate, a position second only in importance to Britannia’s new governor, Julius Agricola. It’s seventeen years since Britannia was burnt and torn in the Boudiccan Revolt but enough time has past for some of the tribes to grumble and for the power of the druids to re-emerge, focused upon the island of Mona. Inspired by Gwylm, his chief druid, the High King of the Ordovices, Owain, wipes out a Roman fort in the north Welsh hills. The governor responds and prepares his army to march. But he needs help. He gets it from Valerius Verrens, one of only two men to survive Boudicca’s infamous assault on the Temple of Claudius in Camulodunon all those years ago.

If you have any liking at all for Roman historical fiction, or indeed any historical fiction, then there’s a very good chance that you’re already a devoted fan of Douglas Jackson’s Hero of Rome series. What a fantastic writer Douglas Jackson is! But his fine words are backed up by two other strengths: the innate ability to tell a marvellous story; and meticulous and thorough historical and military research and insight. Glory of Rome is a thrilling novel from the outset and culminates in a brilliant battle sequence that had me on the edge of my seat. Full review.

Incendium by A.D. SwanstonIncendium by Andrew Swanston
It is 1572 and Elizabethan England is threatened as never before. Mary Queen of Scots might be locked away in Sheffield Castle but she remains the focus for Catholic plotters, their fire fuelled by the Pope’s support and by bloody violence done to Protestant Huguenots in Paris and across France. Spanish and French ships are poised to invade, to steal the crown from the heretic queen. Assassins hide in London’s crowded streets. As the summer heat intensifies and the fear of plague stirs, London, England and Elizabeth herself look ready to ignite and explode. And there is competition to be the one to win the eternal glory of lighting that fuse. Dr Christopher Radcliff is a lawyer in the service of Elizabeth’s longterm favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Leicester more than anyone wants to protect Elizabeth, and Radcliff, a man with agents hidden across the city, is just the person to help him, particularly now with rumours of a new plot, codenamed ‘Incendium’. This is a novel full of character and life and I loved its portrait of Elizabethan London, in the heat and later in the snow. Incendium faces head on the ugliness of Elizabethan spying and counter-spying. Swanston also doesn’t shy away from the Catholic slaughter of the Huguenots in Paris. Incendium perfectly combines history and fiction, historical figures and those that aren’t, and together they paint such a colourful and compelling picture of Elizabethan London at a crucial time for its Queen and her servants. As a historical thriller it works perfectly. Full review.

The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret GeorgeThe Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George
Many of us have our own ideas about Nero, some of which may have been informed by Hollywood. Margaret George cleans the slate and builds up her portrait of Nero from scratch, focusing on Nero the boy and young man, to show how he became a madman to history. Much of book is narrated by Nero himself, drawing us even closer into the machinations of his mind as the years pass and the shadows descend. The Confessions of Young Nero is not just a beautifully written portrait of the painful corruption of a young man, it also depicts power at its most cynical and evil. At times it is embodied – in Messalina and Agrippina and later in Nero himself. But at other times it exists as a general shadow over Rome and the imperial family that darkens and darkens as the novel goes on, reflecting the gradual shadowing of Nero’s own character. All of this is set within a vividly realised Rome, full of palaces, gardens, country retreats, lakes and ships. Margaret George has done this before, with her stunningly perceptive and insightful ‘autobiographies’ of such figures as Cleopatra, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. I’ve loved all of these and I was so excited to learn that one of my very favourite authors would be turning her attention to Nero, one of the most charismatic and intriguing figures in history. Full review.

A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys
It is the summer of 1939 and Lily Shepherd is escaping her tedious life in London for a new beginning in Australia. With her fare fully paid by the government, Lily boards the ocean liner Orontes, which sets sail from England on a month-long voyage to Sydney. Lily’s eyes are to be opened as never before. At sea, with only brief stops on land along the way, the passengers of Orontes have been separated from the world outside and it is a world in which the lights are going out – war with Germany is close, Chamberlain is conducting last minute talks with Hitler for peace, people aboard hope for the best but some fear the worst. The passengers include Jewish refugees and a large group of Italians and some already view them with suspicion. Not everyone who embarked in England will survive the voyage. The writing is absolutely stunning. Rachel Rhys seemingly effortlessly carries us back to 1939, a world in some ways still innocent and yet poised on the edge of blackness. Life aboard the Orontes, with its galas, dinners, parties and gossiping on deck, is brilliantly portrayed, as are the descriptions of the excursions that the passengers undertake, in such inviting places as Naples, the Pyramids and Ceylon. It’s a terrific blend of claustrophobic life aboard the ship and then the excitement of experiencing new places, the heat intensifying as the ship voyages southwards. It feels like these are the dying days of the old world. But the appeal of A Dangerous Crossing doesn’t just lie in its locations and historical detail but also in the passengers themselves. Superb. Full review.

Betrayal by Anthony Riches
It is AD 68 and the suicide of Nero leads to months of chaos as ‘usurper emperors’ use Rome’s legions to fight for the throne. The first of these, Otho, dismisses the imperial bodyguard, a band of Batavi, incorruptible Germanic warriors favoured by Julius Caesar. They are sent home in disgrace to defend the upper Rhine and with them is sent Julius Caesar Civilis, a Batavi officer suspected of treachery against Nero but with the enviable gift of making mud not stick. The drama of the imperial power struggle plays out across the empire but events are taking place in northern Germany that could change everything – eyes turn to the Batavi and Rome’s generals wonder what they will do. Betrayal is the first in a new trilogy by Anthony Riches and it takes as its subject one of the most utterly fascinating periods in history – the Year of the Four Emperors – and focuses on the significant part played in it by the Batavi legions as well as the other legions garrisoned in a series of camps in northern Europe. The focus tightens further onto a small group of centurions, their officers and their men – Batavi and Roman – who are influenced by the intrigue of the times but also help to shape it.

Over the course of this novel, I became fully immersed, its story bringing me close to the history, involving me deeply in its intrigue as well as in the human lives that lay behind it. The relationships between these soldiers are complicated. You do need to have your wits about you to keep up as we move from fort to fort (some of the characters’ names are quite similar) but the effort is rewarded immensely as you get to know these men and learn what matters the most to them. The quality of writing is good indeed. This is confident, vivid and vigorous prose that gives real authority to its subject. There’s a military poetry to parts of this novel and I lapped it up. It reminded me in places of medieval, classical and Anglo-Saxon accounts of war. I love such use of language. Betrayal is a fine, fine novel. Full review.

Corpus by Rory ClementsCorpus by Rory Clements
It is the end of November in 1936 and the people of Britain are being kept in ignorance about the crisis facing the country’s monarchy. But all is about to be revealed, thanks to the independent America press and King Edward VIII himself who is determined to put life with the woman he loves above duty to his country. The upper reaches of society and government are in turmoil and matters aren’t helped by the conflict between fascist and communist which has spread beyond Germany to Spain and elsewhere, including Britain. It’s the time of rallies and demonstrations, calls to arms, idealism and cynicism, spies and treachery. The time is ripe for murder. Professor Tom Wilde teaches history at Cambridge University. His specialism is Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster who was responsible for bringing about the fall of Elizabeth’s greatest rival, Mary Queen of Scots. Wilde knows better than most the potential dangers of the time in which he finds himself living. Wilde himself will need all his skill to help Lydia, the young poet who lives next door to him. Her schoolfriend Nancy has suddenly died and then the parents of another friend have been found butchered in their home. When other individuals emerge with an interest in the murders, Wilde searches for connections and these take him into the dangerous and dark heart of Europe’s turmoil in these grim cold days of the winter of 1936.

The storyline is marvellous! Its complexity is very satisfying to unravel and it captures so much of the sinister world of 1936 Europe. Rory Clements writes as brilliantly as he plots and this is a novel steeped in atmosphere, menace and history. The fact that we know what happened after 1936 adds a certain tension and also means that we know how believable and plausible the events described here are. Full review.

The Rise and Fall of DODO by Neal Stephenson and Nicole GallandThe Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
Melisande Stokes is a lecturer in ancient and classical languages at Harvard University when she is offered a curious job by government secret agency operative Tristan Lyons. It’s likely that Mel would have taken the job anyway thanks to her patronising, arrogant and irritating boss, but it turns out to be simply perfect. Mel is given a number of ancient and more recent documents to translate as part of a test. The texts come from all six continents and from every era and they all attest to one thing – that magic is real. Or rather magic used to be real. The documents also reveal that magic died in the summer of 1851, killed by the Great Exhibition of London. Mel’s job, should she choose to accept it, is to join a top secret government project, D.O.D.O., otherwise known as the Department of Diachronic Operations. It has one mission – to develop a device that will allow its operatives to travel back in time to save magic and alter history. After all, what government wouldn’t want to have magic at its beck and call? Unfortunately, meddling with the past can have a rather adverse and unpredictable effect on the present, especially when so much depends on MUONs – Multiple-Universe Operations Navigators, better known to you and me as witches.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is quite simply spectacular. It’s almost impossible to describe or to pin down. There’s a distinct science fiction feel to bits of it – it is, after all, a novel about time travel and the descriptions of how it works are both sciencey and deliciously unfathomable. That is indeed the point. This classified government agency likes to blind us by science at the same time as confounding us with acronyms. But the science is powered by magic which is also powered by science. There is a rational scientific explanation for everything. I think. Or maybe there isn’t. I’m not sure the witches care very much. There is so much going on. There is so much potential for more to go on. I loved the characters, especially Erszebet. And it is all written absolutely beautifully and in the most intriguing manner. It’s told in a multitude of ways – journal entries, letters, emails, government documents, memos – and they work together brilliantly. As for the premise of this fabulous, clever, witty book, it is ingenious and only equalled by its execution. The competition between this and the following novel for my book of the year was intense and very close.
Full review.

Which brings me to my favourite book published in 2017 and it’s by an author we’ve already seen on this list:

A Dark so Deadly by Stuart MacBrideA Dark So Deadly by Stuart MacBride
When DC Callum McGregor is informed of the discovery of a body in the city of Oldcastle, Scotland, he makes the mistake of hoping that his luck might be about to change. Because Callum is one of The Misfit Mob, the place where Police Scotland dumps the police officers it’s not able to sack. But it appears that the proper police are a bit overstretched and this is a body too many for them to cope with. It’s all too good to be true, of course. The body turns out to be a mummified corpse hidden in the local tip. Callum knows how it feels. A Dark So Deadly is an absolutely stunningly rich and multi-layered novel. On the surface it might be a crime novel, with all of the pleasingly twisty and complex plotting you could wish for, but there is so much more to it than murder. This is a novel set in a fictional Scottish city but it is as real as any place on Earth, and not just because of the fantastic maps that adorn the inside covers, and the people who live in it are entirely believable and alive. There is so much going on, so many crimes – this is not the most contented city you can imagine – all going on at the same time and Callum and his fellow officers are deeply immersed in them all. I have no hesitation in proclaiming A Dark So Deadly to be, in my opinion, the most enjoyable crime novel that I have ever read. It’s complex, ambitious, warm and completely engrossing, tragic and funny, compelling and perfect. Do not miss it. I’m proud to proclaim A Dark So Deadly my top book of 2017.
Full review.