Tag Archives: Review of the year

Book review of 2020

2020. What. A. Year. The one we’ll all look back on, possibly while blowing a raspberry, sticking two fingers up at it, and necking a bottle of rum. I want to celebrate that it’s over so I won’t go on about it. But, as we start a new year, still making our way through a dark and (for so many of us) Lockdowned tunnel, we can see a light at the end of it. The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine was approved for use in the UK on 30 December. What wonderful news! I’m hoping that this news, and the promise it brings, means that I can think a bit more about all the good things – the books that I love high among them and meeting up once more with my lovely booky friends.

I must pay tribute to the authors and publishers who have worked so hard to write and promote their books at such a difficult time. We’ve all grown used to postponed publication dates but it’s hard to imagine how these must affect a writer, especially a debut author, as well as the wonderful publicists, many of whom were furloughed or working from home. You are all amazing! I also want to salute my fellow bloggers. It’s been a challenge for many of us to keep on reading, what with changes to our daily routines but also because of anxiety and lack of concentration. But I have found great support in the book and blogging Community. Friendships have tightened over this year. And now I feel like my reading is picking up again and hopefully my reviewing will, too.

But while I’ve read fewer books in 2020 – at last count 103 instead of my usual 200 – this year saw an Epiphany. I discovered Audiobooks! I’ve been avoiding these pesky blighters for years but they have fulfilled a really strong need to keep on reading while turning my brain off. Jigsaws proved themselves my saviour in 2020. They provide relaxation but also make me concentrate intensely and the strived for goal of completion isn’t stressful but achievable and pleasantly so. Add an audiobook and jigsaws are even more enjoyable. It’s as if jigsaws have replaced the commute, giving me that break between work and blogging. Of the 103 books I read this year, 28 were audiobooks.

There’s a group of books that isn’t included in my list of favourites for 2020, or in my reading tally of the year. I was honoured to be a judge again for the 2020 Historical Writers Association Gold Crown Award. Do take a look at the HWA website page for our wonderful shortlist and winner.

Now to business! This is a list of my favourite books published in 2020, so it doesn’t include anything else I’ve read this year that was published in another year. This has been one of those years when I haven’t persevered with books that I didn’t love and that means that I enjoyed every one of those 100 plus books that kept me company, sometimes through some very dark times. But as I read fewer books than usual, I’ve decided to be strict with myself and, for once, my Top Ten actually means ten! This is a first, I realise. They are presented in no particular order, except for the final top three.

The Cutting PlaceFavourite ten books of 2020

The Cutting Place by Jane Casey
DS Maeve Kerrigan and DI Josh Derwent are among my most favourite fictional detectives and this novel is, in my opinion, the very best of what is a very fine series. It’s disturbing, emotional and utterly engrossing. As for that plot…. stunning! A review.

Deep State by Chris HautyDeep State by Chris Hauty
There’s little better than a good political thriller and this is one of the best I’ve ever read. Hayley Chill is a brilliant character while the plot literally took my breath away – I gasped in shock (on a bus)! It’s not often I’m so completely blindsided by a book. I can’t wait to read the second book, Savage Road, which is out this January.
A review

In Five Years by Rebecca SerleIn Five Years by Rebecca Serle
This relatively short novel is one of the most powerful and moving novels I’ve ever read, demanding, I think, to be read in one sitting. It’s a devastatingly beautiful and heartbreaking tribute to love. While not a romance, it’s a love story all the same and not the one you expect. What a book! Don’t let the cover or the synopsis fool you.
A review.

Possessed by Peter LawsPossessed by Peter Laws
I love horror novels and this is my favourite of 2020. It brings horror and crime together brilliantly and at its heart is the fantastic character of Matt Hunter, one of the most likeable characters you’ll find. The story here is absolutely fantastic and it’s a genuinely disturbing and frightening novel – excellent!
A review.

River of Gold by Anthony RichesRiver of Gold by Anthony Riches
I’m a big fan of Roman historical fiction and I adore this series, featuring Marcus Corvus, his superior Scaurus and their band of Tungrians and Britons. They always get the most dangerous missions, thanks to Emperor Commodus and his henchmen, who want them dead but find them too useful to kill. How I love them and what makes this book even more irresistible is that it’s set in Roman Egypt. Fabulous!
A review.

The Silver Collar by Antonia Hodgson
I was so pleased to see the return of Tom Hawkins and Kitty Sparks after a gap of a few years. I love Antonia Hodgson’s portrayal of Georgian London. It’s a spicey place, scandalous, funny and terribly dangerous. This is a fabulous story, which stands alone very well, and is really hard hitting, with themes of slavery and parenthood.
A review.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart TurtonThe Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton
This book had a hard act to follow (The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle) but it succeeds brilliantly, despite being very different and, again, original. It is such an evocative and atmospheric tale of devilry and evil on the high seas. It is very creepy, extremely clever – ingenious, really – and a joy to read.
A review.

My top three books of 2020

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard OsmanThe Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman
There was a lot of hype and excitement surrounding this book’s publication and every single bit of it is deserved. What a fantastic mystery this is! It’s a treasure of a novel, beautifully written and so witty, with a wonderful cast of very interesting people of a certain age. I was thoroughly engaged from start to finish and I long for the Thursday Murder Club and its members to return.
A review.

The Second Marriage by Gill PaulThe Second Marriage by Gill Paul
I have such a deep love for this novel. Gill Paul’s portrayal of Maria Callas worked its way into my heart and I’ll never forget her. I knew little bits of this story but not enough of it and I was gripped by the tale of this astonishing love triangle of Maria Callas, Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy. This is also my favourite audiobook of the year, superbly narrated by Lisa Flanagan.
A review.

We Begin At the End by Chris WhitakerWe Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker
Chris Whitaker had already established himself as a favourite author of mine before We Begin at the End arrived and swept me off my feet. What a writer! This book is astonishingly rich in place, character and emotion. It’s a masterpiece and deserves nothing less than to be my top book of 2020.
A review.

Honourable mentions!
There have been so many reading highlights in 2020 but I do want to also mention these two books.

The Stasi Game by David YoungThe Stasi Game by David Young
It’s always sad when a favourite series comes to an end but The Stasi Game finishes this particular series perfectly. I’ll miss Karin Müller and the times I’ve spent immersed in East Germany during the 1970s and early 1980s, thanks to David Young’s brilliantly written set of six novels. The author really knows his stuff. I also like how the novels draw on the legacy of the Second World War. This is especially true in this novel which is set in Dresden.
A review.

The Human Son by Adrian J WalkerThe Human Son by Adrian J Walker.
I haven’t read as much science fiction as normal this year but this is my favourite of those I did read. It’s a beautiful portrayal of love, selfless and relentless, as the Erta and the last remaining human learn to understand each other and one another on an Earth from which humanity has been removed.
A review.

The Demon Club by Scott MarianiI also want to mention the thrillers that have given me so much joy this year. Ben Hope is my favourite thriller hero and I thoroughly enjoyed his two adventures of 2020 – The Pretender’s Gold and The Demon Club. I am also such a fan of Clive Cussler and have read his thrillers for almost all my life. I loved Journey of the Pharaohs this year, the publication of which sadly coincided with his death. His legacy will undoubtedly live on.

Other books from other years
Cage of Souls by Adrian TchaikovskyIn 2020 I read far more books published in previous years than I have done for a long time. I took the time to read some books that I’ve wanted to read in ages and they were highlights of the year. I must mention Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, the Wayward Pines trilogy by Blake Crouch (wow!!), and Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St Mary’s time travel series. I have devoured five of these in 2020 as well as the two books so far in the Time Police series.

So, although I read fewer books in 2020, my reading was more varied than usual, with books picked perhaps more carefully and with less of an eye on deadlines. There is much of that that I want to continue in 2021. But 2021 is going to be a bumper year for books! Some books I’m really keen to read have been postponed from 2020, such as Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson, while others that I’ve read quite a time ago will at long last be released into the world, such as When I was Ten by Fiona Cummins – a brilliant book! There is so much to look forward to!

I wish you all a safe, healthy and happy 2021 x

Book Review of 2019

The end of another year… there’s just no stopping them. I always enjoy writing these annual review posts. They feel like a good thing to do on Boxing Day while the nut roast settles. This has been a strange and troubling year in too many ways – politically (no more to be said about that) and personally (I’ve been ill for most of the year and this has made blogging a struggle at times). But there have been highlights. This year I spent all of November obsessed with taking part in National Novel Writing Month and, in a case of third time lucky, I finished it, triumphant! What I produced was a big pile of rubbish but the process was inspirational and so this January I’m going to have my very own National Novel Writing Month and I’m going to try and do it again but hopefully producing something that may have legs. The whole exercise has increased so many times my admiration and respect for all authors. I am in awe of what they do and it makes it even more of a privilege to read their books, often very early, and to write about them.

Which leads me to the other group of people I must thank – publishers and their amazing publicists. I cannot thank you wonderful, kind, generous and amazingly busy people enough. Many of you have been so supportive to me as I’ve gone through my Difficult Year and I’m grateful. I also appreciate all of my fellow bloggers and reviewers – what an inspirational bunch you are! Although you’ve made me buy far too many books…. I’ve bought more books this year than ever before.

Thanks so much to all of you who have taken the time to read my reviews over the last year. It’s such a good feeling knowing I haven’t been talking to myself and it’s really kind of you. I appreciate all of the comments and book recommendations that you’ve posted here. That’s more books that have been bought!

My reading has been a little different this year. I’ve sought out a fair few comfort reads and that also means that I’ve read less crime fiction than normal. Although, having said that, I have read a lot of really excellent crime and psychological thrillers over the last twelve months. You’d have thought that after all of these years of reading, I’d be hard to catch out with a twist or shocking revelation. You’d be wrong! I’ve continued to read lots of my beloved historical fiction and science fiction, although slightly less military action-based of both (yet two such books feature in my top reads!). I don’t know why that is. But it’s in parallel with reading more fiction which is lightly laced with romance or saga. No doubt next year my reading patterns will completely change again. It all makes it very interesting and I’m certainly more susceptible to reading books recommended to me that I might not have contemplated before. It’s all good! I’m sure I’m not the only person whose reading alters. I’d be interested to hear about it.

And so on to the statistics! So far this year I’ve read 172 novels. I’m trying to get this up to 175 but I might not have left myself enough time but I should read a couple more before Big Ben bongs. I’ve read 164 novels published in 2019 (this includes some books I read in December 2018). I’ve also read a fair few 2020 novels (which are absolutely excellent and I’ll do a separate post about them) and I’ve also been reading some oldies. I’ve fallen in love with new old series – The Seven Sisters books by Lucinda Riley, Jessica Fellowes’ Mitford books, Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, the Philip Pullman Dust books. This has been an absolute delight in 2019.

I’ve been trying to put together my top 10 of books published in 2019 (purposely excluding titles published in other years – as I say, I’ll do a post about 2020 forthcoming titles shortly). I’ve not read nearly all of the books that I wanted to. There are big omissions. I’m getting better at going back to books I’ve missed. I keep a list of them. I usually get there in the end, but that does mean that this list is by no means a proper list – it’s just my own personal list. I love reading other people’s top tens. They’re such a highlight of this time of year and add to more books being bought, more books read and loved. Just as they should be. But in trying to get the list down to 10, I’ve failed and I’ve only managed to wrestle it down to 20. I thought about a ruthless cull but then realised that these 20 books leapt out at me and so they must have done that for a reason. It seems wrong to exclude them. The books aren’t presented here in any order except for the final three, which are my favourite three. There is among them a top favourite. With no more ado, here are my favourite 20 books published in 2019.

The Familiars by Stacey Hall
This is one of the most enthralling and enchanting historical novels I’ve read for some time. Its beautiful cover hints at wonders within and it is right. I fell for Fleetwood, our 17th-century heroine, the moment I met her. She could hardly be more vulnerable or isolated, despite her love for her husband and their beautiful ‘modern’ home, and yet she is so resilient. But then she has so little to lose. She believes she’s a dead woman walking. The Familiars is such an atmospheric novel, which is rich in place. I didn’t want to put it down once I picked it up and I read it in two glorious sittings.

Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey
Tiamat’s Wrath is the eighth novel in the Expanse series and surely there can be no science fiction series being written today that I love half as much as I do this one. I love it so much I don’t watch the TV series. It’s engrossing, disturbing and troubling, full of heart and sacrifice, packed with action, and with an alien threat that is as thoroughly terrifying as it is mysterious. Bravo! I wish this series would never end but I suspect that the end is approaching.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
This is a stunningly gorgeous and melancholic tale set along the Thames during the later Victorian years. This is beautiful writing. The flow of the river and its tributaries form the heart of the novel and they also weave their way through its prose and imagery. It’s a hypnotic book, albeit a very sad one in places, because this is a novel about lost children, the hope of a child found, and the folklore of a river that might be the centre of this village’s life but it is also a place of death, especially for those in despair, and superstition. Once Upon a River is an immersive, beguiling novel from start to finish.

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
Big Sky is a magnificent novel, not just for its excellent plot and beautiful, elegant prose, but also for its insight into human behaviour and motives. People here can do bad things, even when they don’t want to and know it’s wrong. That doesn’t make their behaviour any less evil, but it does make them interesting. There’s a battle between good and evil – Reggie and Ronnie (so brilliantly named) are the angels. Jackson Brodie is there to mete out justice and the way in which this novel comes together is jawdropping and marvellous. Kate Atkinson is one of the very finest authors at work today. Big Sky shows yet again why. I’ll be sure not to let this series pass me by again and I urge you to read it.

The Ten Thousand Days of January by Alix Harrow
This is a beautiful novel, beautifully written. The gorgeous cover hints at wonders beneath and it delivers. I’m not generally a reader of fantasy but there’s something about this book that really appealed to me (quite apart from its stunning cover and beautiful writing) – it feels like a mix of historical fiction and science fiction, with an Edwardian girl opening doors into worlds of other possibilities. But not just any Edwardian girl, but one who is vulnerable, regarded as different and exotic, without parental care, virtually a prisoner, in real danger of being considered mad. She is also enchanting. January is an outstanding creation. I adored her. So much of the novel is told with her voice and it is dedicated to her. This is January’s journey and, although there are monsters to be encountered along the way, there are also angels.

The Wayward Girls by Amanda Mason
I love to read frightening tales, especially those that have a haunted house at its heart. Sadly, they rarely scare me, but The Wayward Girls, on more than one occasion, managed to do just that. It is a very creepy tale indeed, perfect for late night reading. It has all of the appeal of a ghost story. There is also something of Poltergeist about it. Iron Sike Farm is a frightening place indeed. It is irresistible. But The Wayward Girls is also character-driven and it’s Loo and Bee who hold our attention, although we are also caught up in the lives of the investigators who visit this farm and must deal with what they find, both in the past and in the present. I read The Wayward Girls at night by lamplight and I can certainly recommend that you do the same. Everything I want from a ghost story, this book gives. That, I think, says it all.

The Long Call by Ann Cleeves
This is the first in a new series by Ann Cleeves – set in a different part of Britain (a long way from Shetland and Northumberland) and with a new detective at its heart. And it is magnificent. The mood and sense of place is presented perfectly from the very first chapter in which we meet Matthew Venn for the first time. Ann Cleeves is a genius in laying bare character so carefully, sympathetically and lightly – and quickly. Almost immediately I could believe that Matthew is a real person, in convincing relationships with his partner, colleagues and parents, newly part of this rural community in north Devon where the rivers Taw and Torridge converge. It’s a beautiful part of the world, yet also tucked away. When crime happens here it really does shock. I am a huge fan of Ann Cleeve’s Vera Stanhope series but Vera has undoubtedly met her match in Matthew Venn.

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris
Robert Harris is easily one of my very favourite authors, if not my favourite, not least because everything he writes is so different, original, ingenious and surprising. And with The Second Sleep Robert Harris has achieved, in my opinion, the greatest surprise of them all. Something happens early on – watch for the clues – and, it might be a cliche to say it, but I could feel my jaw actually dropping. All I’ll say to tempt you to read it, is that The Second Sleep is beautifully written and structured. Its characters feel real, their fears and loves tangible. The Exmoor setting is perfect. Most of all, read this book putting all your expectations and assumptions to one side. Neither belong here. The rewards will be great.

The Undoing of Arlo Knott by Heather Child
This is a truly extraordinary novel. In big ways it’s speculative science fiction as we watch Arlo manipulate time and recent events for various reasons. All of which raises the huge question of what would we do if we could undo an event, reverse an action or word that we regret, save someone we love. But how much would you change? How far back would you go? Where would you draw the line as life’s knots grow increasingly complex and entangled? This is a brilliantly written and clever novel. It shocks and amuses and it has so many twists and unexpected developments. I love speculative fiction and with The Undoing of Arlo Knott we see the genre at its very best.

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
Lisa Jewell is the master of stand alone psychological thrillers and this is proven yet again by The Family Upstairs, which I found to be utterly compelling and engrossing, in a kind of voyeur sense, perhaps, but this darkly disturbing novel is as catchy and addictive as you could desire. At the heart of this book is 16 Cheyne Walk, with its several floors, many rooms and multiple hiding places. There’s barely a room without a secret, barely a space left untouched by its extraordinary past and we explore them all. I could not put this marvellous book down.

The Gameshouse by Claire North
I’m a huge fan of Claire North’s unusual, mind-bending speculative thrillers and The Gameshouse is, I do believe, a masterpiece. The fact that it was first published in three disparate parts doesn’t matter at all. Each story is separate and distinct but each influences the others, the same characters appear in two or three of them, and the influence of the Gameshouse itself grows throughout the three parts in a kind of crescendo. It is very clever. Claire North’s writing is clever and original but it’s also very witty and, fittingly for this novel, playful. The Gameshouse presents a staggering portrait of power, astonishing the reader with the lengths to which players will pursue their games, as well as their (mostly) casual disregard for their enslaved pieces, which they manipulate, manouevre and sacrifice.

All That’s Dead by Stuart MacBride
Stuart MacBride can do no wrong in my eyes. Without doubt, he is my favourite crime writer and Logan McRae and the appalling Roberta Steel my favourite detectives. Stuart MacBride is the wittiest of writers and All That’s Dead sparkles. This is such clever writing. It makes the reader laugh but this contrasts so effectively with other sections of the book which are utterly shocking. The case at the heart of the novel is horrifying. It builds slowly towards something unforgettable. It is astonishing.

The Exiled by David Barbaree
Following on from Deposed, this superb novel, even better than its predecessor, continues the story of what might have been if Nero had survived the plot against him and, blinded, developed an elaborate plot of vengeance. It’s a fantastic idea, brilliantly executed, and here it collides full on with the eruption of Vesuvius. The Exiled is such an exciting and riveting novel – a Roman political thriller with a disaster novel thrown in for our added enjoyment. I couldn’t take my eyes off the pages. Original, clever, exciting and engrossing, I can’t praise this book or its author enough.

Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson
This is a sophisticated, engrossing tale, written with such confidence by an author who has clearly immersed herself in a period that she understands very well indeed. And she brings it to life, especially that little bit of 18th-century England that is Deptford, to the east of London, where slavery is everyone’s business. No punches are pulled here when it comes to the slave trade. The cruelty and inhumanity is laid bare and some sections, with which the author has taken so much care, are upsetting to read but they are also powerfully informative. Blood & Sugar is a compelling novel. The murder mystery is such a good one. The book is action-packed and as page turning as you could wish for. This is such a hard novel to put down.

The Neighbour by Fiona Cummins
The Neighbour is without doubt one of the most atmospherically menacing and sinister novels that I’ve read in quite some time. I read it at night by lamplight. I read other things in the daytime. The Neighbour is a book that belongs to the night. And so all I can do is urge you to turn down the lights and curl up with quite possibly the most atmospheric tale of murder I encountered in 2019. This isn’t about blood or gore, although you’ll certainly encounter scenes that may make your skin crawl, it’s about a mood and a place, and those cursed to live there. It is excellent.

The Lost Man by Jane Harper
This is easily my favourite of Jane Harper’s excellent three mysteries. Once again, Jane Harper brilliantly visualises the outback as well as those hardy people who have to make a living from it. The heat, dust and merciless cruelty of the outback desert at the height of summer is relentless and superbly depicted in The Lost Man. The mystery is very much character-driven. It is all about families and relationships between a small group of people who live such remote and difficult lives. But there is as much love as there are secrets. It’s an excellent novel, beautifully written. Jane Harper is an irresistible writer. And what a fantastic premise!

Triumph in Dust by Ian Ross
Triumph in Dust completes the story of Roman Centurion, General and hero Castus and how this series has grown. It is an outstanding novel and a triumphant conclusion. We’re familiar with Castus and his struggles with Constantine, the emperor’s sons and family as well as with his rival emperors. Castus has had years caught in the middle of civil war, in the most perilous situations. But now Castus, much older with his body failing him, embarks on a final mission for an emperor who has caused him so much grief and pain, and it stands out for the very personal struggle that it will bring. Castus hangs on to his paganism which is so much a part of who he is. This tension between faiths, between the new and the old worlds, between Rome and Constantinople, is such an original and compelling element of the series and is particularly resonant in its finale.

Now to my three favourite novels of 2019….

Our Child of the Stars by Stephen Cox
This glorious, enchanting novel spellbound me. I’ve not read anything like it before. Its portrayal of a young alien child, embraced by a human couple with so much love to give, in the paranoid, moon-reaching world of 1969, is all-powerful and astonishing. It’s also an exciting adventure. There are hints about other planets, other aliens, that give me hope that Stephen Cox will return us to this world, reunite us with Cory once more. Our Child of the Stars is a very special novel indeed and, even though I read it almost a year ago it has stayed with me throughout the year. A truly exceptional novel written gorgeously.

The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick
I cannot overstate my love of Elizabeth Chadwick’s writing and her novels. It’s hard to imagine anyone else who can immerse the reader so deeply in the medieval period, bringing to such vivid and colourful life kings and queens but also those other people whose names are known to history but so little else. Elizabeth Chadwick’s great writing love is William Marshal, The Greatest Knight, and here she turns her attention to his mother-in-law Aiofe, a beautiful Irish princess who was so much more than that. I knew nothing about Aiofe before reading The Irish Princess but now I am fascinated by her and feel that I’ve been given a glimpse into her extraordinary life in 12th-century Ireland and England. Elizabeth Chadwick knows this period inside out and we reap the rewards of this knowledge with a novel built upon incredible historical details and insight. And because it feels so real we care deeply for these people, especially Aiofe and Richard. Expect strong emotion. I cried ugly tears more than once. I was so involved in Aiofe’s story. I’ve loved so many of Elizabeth Chadwick’s novels and The Irish Princess is right there among the very best, equalling The Greatest Knight, which, considering how breathtakingly good that novel is, is high praise indeed.

Leading on to my favourite novel published in 2019.

Wanderers by Chuck WendigWanderers by Chuck Wendig
On 3 June, in the small rural town of Maker’s Bell in Pennsylvania, fifteen-year-old Nessie gets out of bed, leaves her home and starts to walk. Nessie is just the first of many. Others are drawn to the walkers; some see them as angels, others as demons. Society can’t cope with the walkers. It can’t understand them. Order starts to collapse. It is a time for evil men to thrive, especially those who say they are servants of God. And all the time the Flock walks resolutely on, completely unaware of the growing danger around them. Wanderers is one of those rare novels that becomes such a part of your life when you read it that you feel different for it. It’s 800 pages long and not a page is wasted. I wanted to read it as soon as I heard about it and I bought and started it on the day it was published. There is so much to Wanderers. It contains so many lives and their stories. Chuck Wendig is to be applauded for the sheer quality of the writing, for the complex, multi-layered plot, and for the range of characters that we meet and spend time with. Comparisons have been made to The Stand, and there are similarities but, personally, I think Wanderers is the better book. What drives it on, though, is the fantastic mystery at its heart. Where are the walkers going? What will happen when they get there? On so many levels Wanderers succeeds. It’s a significant novel. But it’s also thrilling, horrifying, emotional, engrossing and is an absolute joy to read.

What an incredible bunch of books! And I know from those I’ve read already that 2020 is going to be just as good. I hope you’ll join me as we read together through the year. Have a wonderful New Year and I wish you health and happiness for 2020.

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!

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.

Book review of 2016

The year is fast running away from me. I’d been determined to get my Book review of 2016 posted in good time before the bookshops closed for the holidays and then flu reared up its ugly head and levelled me with a thump. But now that I’m feeling almost human again – that is, human unless you ask me to speak as I have no voice whatsoever – I’m grabbing this chance to get the post out. In a few days I want to do another post giving my suggestions for books to look out for during 2017, particularly during the first half of the year. I’ve been lucky to have read a few already and to have a sizeable growing pile of them by my side and I think 2017 will be an even better year for those like me who enjoy nothing more than having their eyeballs glued to a book. In a manner of speaking.

In the past I’ve done top 10s or so of books by genre, resulting in a rather long list of thirty odd books. This year I thought I’d try something different and do a top list grouping all of the books together. As I write this, I’m still not absolutely certain how many there will be [turns out there are 17!]. I’ve read 203 books so far this year and it’s not easy whittling them down because I make a point of only reading good books. I’m so fortunate to be able to do that. So I’ve had to be brutal. No wonder this post has taken me so many days to write!

My reading tends to be focused between historical fiction, science fiction and some crime fiction or thrillers. I don’t read a huge amount of crime fiction – although adding them up it comes to a total of about 50 read, which isn’t too shabby – but the ones that I do read I tend to adore. I think that crime fiction has been especially strong this year, with some newish authors really growing into their characters and producing outstanding, gripping and memorable novels. The run of psychological thrillers continues and it’s true to say that this is a genre I can struggle with – I abandon a fair few unfinished. At its best this is a fantastic genre but it does risk repeating itself. I’m looking forward to seeing how it will develop in 2017. But I do hope that no more books are cursed with the tagline ‘with a twist you won’t see coming’.

As usual, and as mentioned, much of my reading during 2016 was divided between historical fiction and science fiction, the two genres that I love most of all and both gave me so much pleasure during 2016 – perfect escapism. While there were relatively few surprises in historical fiction in 2016, my favourite authors continued to reward me with fine additions to series that I have loved and followed for years. I can never express enough how grateful I am to these authors or to their publishers. To name but a few: Angus Donald, Douglas Jackson, Paul Fraser Collard, Giles Kristian, Conn Iggulden, Harry Sidebottom, Anthony Riches, Ben Kane, Robert Fabbri, Simon Scarrow, Ian Ross, David Wishart, Lindsey Davis, Toby Clements. These could quite easily form a top list of their own and so I want to give them special mention here. These books give me such pleasure and I am so grateful for every one of them. Each of these novelists plays such a key part in my reading year and so in 2017 I’ll be writing some spotlight posts on them as a thank you.

Michael Arnold was missing off the list this year but I’m so pleased to hear that Stryker will return in 2017. I’m also hoping for a new Manda (MC) Scott novel in 2017. It was also great to see Robyn Young make a return in 2016 with Sons of the Blood, the first in a new highly-anticipated series. Elizabeth Chadwick’s fine series on Eleanor of Aquitaine concluded this year in the marvellous The Autumn Throne.

There have been some noticeable trends in historical fiction this year – Victorian murder mysteries have not only been relatively numerous, they’ve also got me hooked. Secondly, I have read at least seven novels focused on the Wars of the Roses this year and I’ve reached the stage that I might not be able to read another for quite some time!

Science fiction, as in 2015, was outstanding in 2016 and transported me in wonder to numerous other worlds and times. 2016 hasn’t been an easy year (to put it mildly) and science fiction – and historical fiction – have been essential for getting me through it and SF has been especially kind to me. This year, thanks to Alastair Reynolds’ Beyond the Aquila Rift, I discovered the value and appeal of science fiction short stories. As a result, a whole new world has opened up for me. As with historical fiction, it’s been so difficult pruning my favourite science fiction reads down to just a handful. But if it were easy then it wouldn’t be worth doing.

There have been other books I’ve enjoyed this year that have fallen outside the usual genres and one I have to mention for the pure pleasure it provided – Mount! by Jilly Cooper – absolutely loved it! I must mention Scott Mariani as well. I’m a huge fan of his Ben Hope thrillers and this year he gave me two and they were fantastic (Star of Africa and The Devil’s Kingdom).

I’m grateful to all the kind publicists and publishers who repeatedly make my day by sending me their books to review and to the authors for writing them. And to you all for taking the time to read my reviews. Thank you.

Top reads

Right! On with the my top (17) reads of 2016. The books aren’t in any particular order but the one at the end is my favourite. All of the books here were published in 2016.

In the Cold Dark Ground by Stuart MacBride
In the Cold Dark Ground by Stuart MacBrideThis might have been one of the first books I reviewed in 2016 but I never stopped loving it. ‘As always, Stuart MacBride perfectly combines the investigation of murders and other crimes with his portrayal of the men and women who pursue the criminals. There are goodies and baddies on both sides, all of whom are fascinating, whether they appear for just a few pages or come and go throughout. I love that these are substantial novels. They are immersive reads, they are funny (I only have to think of the ‘Sacred Wooden Stick of Crime-Scene Dominion) and so sad, gruesome and terrifying. Above all, they are fantastic and In the Cold Dark Ground is, in my opinion, the very finest of them all’. Full review.

Arkwright by Allen Steele
Arkwright by Allen SteeleThis ‘extraordinary, wonderful novel that combines an exploration of 20th-century science fiction with the fabulous story of how one writer set out to make science fiction fact, reaching for the stars, knowing it wasn’t achievable in his own lifetime but laying out a path to enable his descendants to do just that. Arkwright moves through the years and decades, through lives, through hopes, despair and aspirations, marriages and children, the Legion of Tomorrow advancing, until finally we are in a place every bit as brilliantly science fiction-y as we, or Nathan Arkwright, could possibly have hoped for… I cannot praise Arkwright enough. There is so much in it to discover. It’s accessible but sciencey and meticulous, it’s fast moving – I could not wait to see what would happen next. And it’s one of those science fiction novels that I wished were three times the length.’ Full review.

A Fever of the Blood by Oscar de Muriel
A Fever of the Blood by Oscar de Muriel‘On New Year’s Day 1889, a patient escapes from a lunatic asylum in Edinburgh, leaving a nurse brutally murdered, gripped by a poison so severe that her contortions snapped her spine. The manhunt is given to local Detective Adolphus ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray and Inspector Ian Frey, who has been banished to Scotland from London and sees little hope of return… So begins a cat and mouse chase across Scotland and the north of England during one of the worst winters in living history. A Fever of the Blood has just the right amount of melodrama and witchery. The superstition is counteracted by a detective’s cynicism but there’s still enough to chill, particularly when the action takes us up into the snow-blasted moors and hills. The settings, both town and country, are wonderfully drawn and they are populated by a host of fascinating and strange characters. McGray and Frey are marvellous creations and Oscar de Muriel has put them within a story that’s worthy of them. I lapped it up, was constantly surprised by its twists and turns, and I am so looking forward to meeting the two of them again.’ Full review.

The Murder Road by Stephen Booth
The Murder Road by Stephen Booth‘When Mac Kelsey got his lorry wedged under a low country bridge, having been misdirected by his satnav, he might have thought that his delivery run of animal feed could get no worse. He would have been wrong. Afterwards, locals cross at being trapped either in or outside of this little hamlet, discover a mystery – the lorry is empty, the driver is gone, only a trail of blood to indicate he was ever there at all… I love Stephen Booth’s writing. The Peak District setting, the area around the town of New Mills in this case (a town that used to feature on long walks when I was a youngster) is so well evoked, capturing the beauty of this part of the world while also hinting that life there isn’t always easy. It’s the perfect location for murder, after all… I am mystified as to why this series has passed me by. It has everything I want from a crime series – great writing, atmospheric well-drawn locations, intriguing characters (both suspect and police) and a thoroughly satisfying mystery. I am now hooked.’ Full review.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch‘Jason Dessen, his wife Dani and their 14-year-old son Charlie lead a contented life in their brownstone town house in Boston. Jason teaches physics to college kids while Dani, once an up-and-coming artist, is now a full-time mother raising their happy, kind and arty son. Thursday is Family Night but on this particular Thursday, against his better judgement, Jason leaves the family nest to pop out to a local bar to buy a good friend a drink to congratulate him for winning a major science award. Promising to return within the hour bearing ice cream, Jason sets out without a backward glance and falls into a nightmare… It takes more than a good premise to make me read a whole book in one go and Dark Matter fulfils entirely the promise of its opening chapters by delivering shock after shock, not just for Jason but also for us. As the title suggests, Blake Crouch takes us into the mindbending territory of quantum physics and, while there were times when I thought my brain might frazzle with overwork, the author makes every effort to make the non-physicist reader such as myself understand just enough. In fact, I really loved the visualisation and dramatisation of the physics. It works brilliantly well, terrifying and fascinating all at the same time… If I had to find fault it would be that I wanted much, much more – more pages, more of the ideas, more of the endless possibilities of this brilliantly created universe. Dark Matter is such an excellent science fiction thriller with an irresistible premise brilliantly fulfilled.’ Full review.

In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings
In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings‘This is a novel of such beauty and elegance, I doubt I’ll read another this year that moves me quite as much. I don’t want to tell you what the mystery is. It’s not a great surprise but everything in this novel should be discovered for the first time by its fortunate reader. It takes us deep into Bella’s soul, removing her from the familiar, away from a controlling, bullish husband, and placing her in the most gorgeously painted Cornish seaside world, a place of myth and discovery. I’m a very regular visitor to this part of Cornwall and I loved its descriptions of familiar places around St Ives, especially the church at Zennor… Amanda Jennings writes so beautifully, I can’t begin to give In Her Wake the praise it deserves. It kept me up until late into the night. I didn’t want it to end but I finished it far too quickly. I just didn’t want to put it down. For all of its heavy themes, In Her Wake is not a depressing novel – it’s one that is life-affirming and inspirational, full of hope. I did cry a fair bit but some of those tears were tears of happiness… In Her Wake is a wonderful, wonderful novel. My emotions were rung out of me. A novel of the year for me and one I will be sure to keep close.’ Full review.

Six Tudor Queens I: Katherine of Aragon by Alison Weir
Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon by Alison Weir‘This novel, the first in an ambitious series to chronicle all of Henry’s marriages, queen by queen, is no romance. Historical authenticity is what matters here. Alison Weir, a well-known historian, gives us the detail of Tudor royal life. The palaces and their rooms are vividly described, the etiquette of court, the roles of the servants and nobles who kept it moving, and, increasingly, the men of power, such as Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More. Katherine’s position at the centre of the court is slowly marginalised as Anne Boleyn is sensed in the wings. This is a novel from Katherine’s perspective. As is so often the case, she is the last to know… [The novel] demonstrates so brilliantly that there is still so much to say about these most famous queens… [It] is not only very well written, compelling and meticulously researched, it is also a thing of beauty in its own right. This is a gorgeous hardback. I can’t wait to have the full series on my shelves. I can only repeat myself – this book is magnificent.’ Full review.

The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer
The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer‘Eve Singer is the face of crime on TV’s iWitness News. Working closely with her cameraman Joe, Eve’s job is to chase crime, to capture it on film before any other news stations, to speak to the camera, to find the human story of pain, and bring the horror of crimes and accidents into homes. And all this while desperately trying not to throw up in the corner with the awfulness of what she has to see and report on to keep her job… The first chapter … is one of the most bloodcurdling and utterly gripping opening chapters that I’ve ever read in crime fiction. I couldn’t have put it down after those few pages if I’d wanted to and that was the last thing on my mind. This is a book I read late into the night, finishing it the next day. If you’re after a compelling, urgent pageturner then this is it. That opening chapter also captures the style and skill of Belinda Bauer. Something absolutely horrendous is being described but the tone is pitilessly sharp, witty and self-aware. It goes straight to the heart of the matter, turning the world of murder and serial killers into a reality… A great deal of praise has surrounded The Beautiful Dead since its publication. Not a word of it is undeserved.’ Full review.

Death’s End by Cixin Liu
Death's End by Cixin LiuDeath’s End completes Cixin Liu’s science fiction masterpiece begun with The Three-Body Problem and continued in The Dark Forest… This is a beautifully-written novel, made particularly so by the translation of Ken Liu… The ideas are vast and at times very complex but the narrative takes its time to explain much of it in ways I could understand. Not all of it, but most of it. This is at heart a First Contact apocalyptic tale and for me little gets more gripping in fiction than that… We are presented with the infinite wonder of the universe, a universe in which other life must exist and on remarkable occasion is encountered. The differences are almost unfathomable. There is undoubtedly a bleakness to this vision. The insignificance of Earth is impossible to overstate. But what stands out are a few key humans who in each of the three books are shown to have had an immense influence over life and its development. Cultures are different but they can unite in a common cause. People will not give up and just look at what they can achieve! But for what? And it is that ultimate question which this final book in an astonishing masterpiece of a trilogy seeks to answer. This is one of those trilogies that I am the richer for reading.’ Full review.

Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt‘Black Spring has much to recommend it. Surrounded by countryside but close to major cities, it’s a secluded and picturesque small town that houses a close-knit community. It must be good because, after all, nobody ever seems to leave… Katherine van Wyler is Black Spring’s secret. She is also their witch. With her eyelids and lips sewn shut, she wanders the streets of the town, following a predictable pattern that she has followed for years but regularly breaking it to visit her neighbours. The townspeople have grown used to turning round in their houses only to see Katherine standing in the corner of a room, or standing outside the window staring in… I was gripped by Hex. I found it deliciously chilling and utterly engrossing. I was fascinated by Katherine and her story. I pitied her much more than I thought I would whereas the behaviour of the people horrified me. There are moments of sheer terror and, as the novel moves from the ‘normal’ to the very definitely not normal, I couldn’t wait to see what would happen. I was frightened. I did expect to see shadows in the corner when I turned off the light. Hex is such a creepy tale, relishing and playing with people’s expectations of witches and curses, while also demonstrating so effectively that the real horror may actually lie within.’ Full review.

The Medusa Chronicles by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds
The Medusa Chronicles by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds‘Captain Howard Falcon should never have survived when his dirigible, Queen Elizabeth IV, crashed to Earth in the 2080s. Something of an experiment, Falcon was saved by cyborg surgery that turned him into something other than a man, something other than a robot. It also turned him into a curiosity, a position that was compounded when, in the 2090s, Falcon sailed into the upper gaseous clouds of Jupiter on the Kon-Tiki, a balloon craft, where he observed swimming great leviathans, the ‘medusae’, preyed upon by ‘mantas’. Falcon was able to communicate with these enormous beasts and proclaimed them peaceful. This is in Falcon’s past. Now the centuries are passing by… If I were to compile a checklist of everything I wanted from a work of science fiction, then this would tick every box and add some I hadn’t thought of. There are wonders to be found here. We are taken on many diversions, spending time away on other worlds, sometimes on Earth, even under the seas. The authors’ love for nature shines through here, not least in Jupiter. I defy you to read these scenes and not have them stay with you. There are so many memorable moments. The Medusa Chronicles is mesmerising, engrossing and beautifully written, its characters and dialogue imbued with wit and humanity, even after a great deal of time has passed and humans aren’t what they were.’ Full review.

The Furies of Rome by Robert Fabbri
The Furies of Rome by Robert Fabbri‘It is AD 58 and, against all odds, Vespasian, as well as his brother Sabinus and uncle Gaius, has survived the madness-tinted reigns of emperors Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius. But now Rome is descending even deeper into the shadows – Nero is on the throne and everyone lives and dies at the mercy or whim of the emperor and his court of favourites… The Furies of Rome is divided in two, with the first half of the story taking place in Rome and the second in Britannia. It would be impossible to say which is the more enjoyable because both are absolutely superb and utterly gripping. It would be hard to imagine that anything can rival the cruelty and madness of Nero’s corrupt court as depicted here but Britannia under attack from Boudicca’s Revolt manages it. This is exciting stuff – intrigue and corruption on a massive scale in Rome with Britannia torn apart by violence, vengeance and war… Robert Fabbri’s portraits of the emperors are always fantastic and memorable – Tiberius gave me nightmares. But Fabbri reaches new heights with Nero. Here is an extraordinary figure – an insane mix of child and man. An emperor who wants to be the equal of his subjects – as a charioteer or a singer and musician – but in reality is a monster and megalomaniac. Nero is mesmerising on the page. Nero, though, is just one of many highlights in this gripping and worthy addition to a fine and consistently excellent series.’ Full review.

Gallows Drop by Mari Hannah
Gallows Drop by Mari Hannah‘At long last DCI Kate Daniels is going to put herself first. She is just a day or two away from a long period of leave and she knows just how she’s going to spend it – repairing the relationships that matter the most. But little goes rarely to plan in this job, so why should Kate be surprised when the body of a young man is found hanging from an ancient gallows? There’s something especially poignant about this case. Kate was one of many who saw this lad win a wrestling competition at a country show the day before. He was in the prime of his life. How did he end up hanging from the gallows? And who’ll look after the case when Kate’s on leave? Will she be able to let it go?… Kate Daniels is a fantastic creation. She doesn’t always make the best of decisions and she has her faults but she is such a joy to know and, tellingly, she is much loved by her team, especially the adorable and protective DS Hank Gormley… Mari Hannah writes beautifully. We benefit hugely from her depth of research and knowledge. Her love of the stunning northern countryside also shines through. It’s evoked in both descriptions and dialogue. These novels have such a strong sense of place and it is lived in by some fascinating characters, some who behave well, some who don’t, and others who try and do their best. When you get to the end of this fantastic novel and read its final pages you will know why I am desperate for the next book in the series. Crime fiction doesn’t get much better than this. ‘Full review.

First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson
First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson‘It is 1451 and Henry VI, a troubled and unhappy man, more monk than king, realises that he is in need of family. He has been unable to give his queen, Marguerite of Anjou, the child they need to secure their royal line, and the royal dukes are becoming increasingly watchful and belligerent. Henry summons his half-brothers to court, Edmund and Jasper Tudor, the sons of a secret and illegal marriage between Henry V’s widow Catherine of Valois and the Welsh poet Owen Tudor who stole her heart. Soon they are the confidants of Henry and his queen, given titles and lands, precedence, and the prospect of a rich and noble marriage. Lucky for them, then, that there is another new person at court – Margaret Beaufort, the charismatic, painfully young and tiny heiress, the richest in the land and in the gift of the king… First of the Tudors picks up the thread of the story begun with The Agincourt Bride and continued with The Tudor Bride. These magnificent, enchanting novels told the tale of Catherine of Valois’ transformation into Henry V’s Queen of England and then, pulling happiness from grief, wife of Owen Tudor. And now, Joanna Hickson returns to the story of Catherine’s family, focusing on her second Tudor son, Jasper… A standout figure for me is Margaret Beaufort. Joanna Hickson captures something enthralling about her. There is a power and strength to her that contrasts so well with her vulnerability and, for the earlier part of the novel at least, her innocence. Watching that innocence be destroyed is one of the most affecting and compelling parts of the novel… This is a tale that moves between castles… Joanna Hickson has brought those stone walls back to life and filled them with the voices of the people who called them home.’ Full review.

The Long Cosmos by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
The Long Cosmos by Terry Pratchett and Stephen BaxterThe Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter was always intended to be five novels long, The Long Cosmos being its last. But the loss of Terry Pratchett in 2015 has added such a sadness and a finality to its closure. Much of The Long Cosmos was completed before Terry’s death but Stephen Baxter is to be warmly thanked for his dedication in bringing it to this finished, polished state, thereby concluding a series that I have adored for the last four years… I’ve been trying so hard to think about what it is that makes me love this series so deeply. The story itself is built on a brilliant premise and it is supported by so many fantastic ideas and objects, some of them very funny and others astonishing, making me marvel at the imaginations that created them. We are taken to so many different worlds, which range from the incredibly odd (with wildlife to match) to the tragically afflicted. Some are even off-planet – as we enjoyed in The Long Mars. But there’s more to the series that even this. Its vision is so richly humane, warm, witty, compassionate. At times there is deep melancholy, it can certainly be quirky, but above all – and I’ve said this before – it’s wise. But not in a preaching way, in a kind way. The wonders of this series are immense, the appeal of the characters is limitless, the imagination behind its creativity is glorious, and its wit and compassion are marvellous.’ Full review.

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey‘It is 1885 and Colonel Allen Forrester, with such a small group of men, leaves Vancouver to embark on an expedition to explore the Wolverine River in Alaska… Colonel Forrester’s mind is not entirely on his mission. Recently married to Sophie, he has had to leave her behind in the barracks at Vancouver, with only the other officers’ wives and daughters for company. And Sophie has such an adventurous, independent spirit. She would far prefer to be exploring with her husband, capturing the images on a camera, seeing with her own eyes the wildlife of this remote region. But it is not to be and instead she must stay behind, missing her husband intensely, experiencing a personal journey of her own, every bit as hazardous as the one that her husband must face, fearing that he may never return, too distant for letters, her mind too alive to the risks ahead while doing all she can to combat them… The writing is breathlessly beautiful. The journal extracts bring the long dead characters of Allen and Sophie to life in such a meaningful, memorable way. They both lay themselves bare and it is hypnotic, a privilege to be allowed so deeply into their lives and thoughts. The illustrations work so well. This is such an attractive book even before you read its words! But what makes it truly astounding is its portrayal of the natural world, not just in Alaska but also in Vancouver. Nature is infused with magic and the imagination. Its wonders are ultimately unknowable despite mankind’s best efforts to record it and trap it, whether physically or through the lens of a camera… This is a very special book indeed and Eowyn Ivey is an incredibly gifted writer, bringing to us all the wonder, beautiful strangeness and fragility of the Alaska she loves.’ Full review.

Which brings me to my favourite book published in 2016:

Conclave by Robert Harris
Conclave by Robert Harris‘The Pope is dead. One hundred and eighteen cardinals gather from across the world to form the Conclave that will elect the next Pope in proceedings steeped in tradition, shrouded in complete secrecy. Millions upon millions of the faithful and the interested watch the chimney above the Sistine Chapel for the tell-tale white smoke that would mean that a decision has been reached. But, before the white smoke can come, there may be days of black smoke – evidence of conflict, inconclusive votes, factions… In Conclave, Robert Harris achieves a remarkable feat, creating a story that feels remote from the world and from time… The novel is set in the near future – we’re told that no actual real figure is represented here – but it feels timeless… Harris captures the claustrophobia of the Conclave, the lack of fresh air and light, the increasing stress and almost hysteria as a conclusive vote eludes the cardinals. And within these confines, covering a period of just a few days, Harris develops a mood of such tension and expectation that I could not bear to put this book down. Robert Harris manages this tension wonderfully, turning up the pressure valve as we move from vote to vote in a perfectly structured novel. This is a thriller, albeit an unusual and original thriller, and a main reason for its success is the outstanding cast of characters.’ One might never have thought that such a subject could provide the subject for a thriller as tense and compelling as this one but with this masterpiece Harris proves how wrong we are and how right he is.’ Full review.

2015 – Book review of the year

I read more books in 2015 than I ever have in one year before – 201 books and they weren’t shorties either. As usual, they comprised historical fiction, science fiction and a few thriller titles, but 2015 stood out because it was the year in which I got back my crime fiction reading bug, something I’d lost about 25 years ago. Strange that. I can’t explain it. As one of the judges of the HWA Debut Crown Award for 2015, I had the honour of reading a whole bunch of historical fiction novels which aren’t included in the year’s tally – many congratulations to Ben Fergusson for his winning novel The Spring of Kasper Meier. The quality of the novels I read in 2015 was extremely high, although I was harder to please. I kept to my Resolution of dropping books that hadn’t won me over by the magic 100 page mark and there were more Did Not Finishers than ever before. There were also a fair few books, as always, that I didn’t read but wish that I had. Chief among these was The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley. But it, and others, too, are not going anywhere. I will get there in the end.

I am so grateful to all of the publicists who have sent books my way over the last year – I am indebted to you and I am so happy to have met so many of you over the last twelve months. I must also thank every author who has given me so much pleasure over the last year with their wonderful gift of stories. And to everyone who has taken the time to read a review, thank you. I can’t think of anything better to do with my time than share a love of good books.

So, on with the list of favourite titles for 2015. These are, as usual, divided by genre and are in no particular order, although at the end of each category there is a Favourite favourite.

Science fiction

2015 was an outstanding year for outstanding science fiction. Choosing ten favourites is no easy task but here they are. Click on the cover image and you’ll be taken to the review.

Seveneves by Neal StephensonSeveneves is the first Neal Stephenson book I’ve read. I was attracted to it by its themes and promise of hard science fiction. I love SF brickbooks and Seveneves proved irresistible. For me, the first two thirds of this novel is nigh on perfect science fiction. If you were to give me a checklist of what I wanted from SF then this would tick most of the boxes. The plot seemed made for me – end of the world, space stations and space ships, heroism, weakness, action scenes that take the breath away and ideas and visions that make the jaw drop. This had it all. This is a saga to lose oneself in. It is rich, layered, alive. Its detail is absolutely fascinating and complements perfectly the scenes of high drama. The meticulously presented ordeal of surviving day by day on the Ark contrasts with the later section’s elaborately developed and grand view of mankind’s future. Seveneves is a triumph – I cannot praise it enough.

Golden Son by Pierce BrownI didn’t love Red Rising as much as most did. For me, it was war games, and very nasty ones too, for adolescents. It was far too similar to The Hunger Games and I tired of the relentless violence. But I knew that Golden Son would be the book for me. Darrow is now freed of the Academy just as the series is freed of these familiar YA dystopian themes. Golden Son soars, free of the Academy, Mars and of our preconceptions. Darrow has become a leader of men and women. His speeches inspire, his actions impress and devastate, while his private grief wipes us out. The story is told in the first person, by Darrow himself, and the result is an extraordinary, powerful journey. As I’ve said already, it is exhausting, intense, astonishing.

Planetfall by Emma NewmanWithout doubt, Planetfall is one of the finest novels I’ve read this year. It’s one of those books that defies genre and demonstrates all that is wonderful and important about science fiction. It is an immensely rewarding, powerfully emotional read. The flashbacks to Earth provide a memorable contrast to this new life under different heavens. The society is evolving but at what cost? There is an Eden feel to the colony, a religion built around Planetfall and the Pathfinder, science and faith working together, but, despite the truly strange and enigmatic alien structure and the mystery of its call to humanity, Planetfall is at heart a novel about the human condition and the struggle of one woman to find her way through life when circumstances call her to account. I cannot praise this book enough and I urge you to read it.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky ChambersComparisons have been made to Firefly and I can see why. This is indeed the most Firefly-y of space operas that I’ve read but it’s no copy or derivative. As you read it you might think once or twice of people or moments aboard Firefly, but Becky Chambers takes us to whole new worlds and the novel format – this is not a short book – means that she has the time to explore. But in one way more than others does it resemble Firefly – its fabulous spirit of adventure that opens its arms to all that is different and wondrous in a dangerous but thoroughly fascinating universe. Small Angry Planet is one of the most enjoyable SF novels I have ever read and I’ve read such a lot. I read it in its independently-published days, ahead of its big release this year by Hodder & Stoughton and I am so pleased to see it reborn for a wider readership, to see it met with such affection and pleasure. I’ve not met anyone who hasn’t been entranced by this wonderful book. Do read it!

Luna by Ian McDonaldLuna is an extraordinary novel, its drama almost entirely dictated by the quality of its characterisation. We are presented with a cast of many, most drawn from the five Dragon families, and every one of them, however brief their time on the page, is given a distinct and important place in the story. The families are connected through the most complicated relationships – it is common to have more than one spouse or several lovers, of either sex, these unions pulling together families with deep-rooted suspicion, even hatred, of the other. Children become bargaining tools, beauty is a weapon, power is everything. Ian McDonald uses new language to describe relationships – all explained in the useful glossary. Luna is a society that has evolved in ways unfamiliar to us. While technology might be more sophisticated in many aspects, its relationships (personal and business) are complicated but also becoming increasingly primitive and raw. In law cases, a verdict can be decided by battling champions slicing each other apart, children of rival houses compete by racing naked and unprotected across the Moon’s deadly surface. The cost of survival is so high on Luna, it has changed society.

The Tabit Genesis by Tony GonzalesThere is so much going on throughout this novel that it becomes the most exhilarating read. It contains the perfect mix of action and mystery, the present haunted by the past, an uncertain future ahead, with who knows what watching. There is a sense that mankind is on trial and not doing too well. But even the characters we expect to dislike the most are not easily dismissed. We are shown their past, the origins of what they have become. In addition to the human component, the glimpses of aliens, including the Raothri, are hugely intriguing and the novel more than satisfied my thing for spaceships. I sense that there is much more to come from this universe and what we will be given will be grand. There are tantalising glimpses of potential futures, other worlds, alien species. I cannot wait to explore more of these worlds, there seems no limits to where we may be taken.

Nemesis Games by James S.A. CoreyNemesis Games is an action thriller of the highest order. We are spared nothing of the horrors unfolding on Earth, the terror of the battles in space between opposing forces. The authors take us into the very heart of it and it is breathlessly exciting. Every single time we move from perspective to perspective it’s difficult to leave that person behind but that feeling lasts for just a second or two as the heat of the new chapter’s action presses down on the reader. The Expanse novels are about to become a TV series and I can’t think of a series better suited for it. Every novel surprises and thrills me and Nemesis Games is no different. Fantastic action adventure with wonderfully-drawn characters, all facing the great mystery of the Expanse, not yet knowing whether the terms good or evil even apply to it. The protomolecule and Detective Miller get little mention in Nemesis Games but it is one of the great strengths of the series that this doesn’t matter at all. In this novel we have the repercussions of what has passed, how it has affected the Belt and the inner planets, as well as individuals such as Holden and his crew. It’s powerful stuff.

Aurora by Kim Stanley RobinsonAurora is a powerful novel about the path of human life, about its extraordinary resilience and its capacity for hope. Whether either of these proves reliable is another matter. Large questions are raised about the purpose and success of generation ships and the intention of those who build them. One thing is for sure – travel between solar systems takes an inconceivably long period of time and this novel, more than any I’ve read before, shows the stresses that this brings to bear on people who must think not only of themselves but also, and more importantly, of their descendants. Aurora is a captivating novel – beautifully written, packed with science and filled with wonder. The personalities are large, the vision is enormous. It is also very satisfying to read with an addictive plot. I enjoyed 2312 very much but I think that Aurora has taken everything that I loved about this earlier novel and made it even bigger, even better.

Poseidon's Wake by Alastair ReynoldsI realise that I’m not able to tell you the best bits about this fantastic, enormously rewarding book because that would be giving the game away and you really need to discover it for yourself – the second half of the novel comprises one jaw-dropping moment after another, building up to a marvellous cimax. This book gives me all that I want from science fiction – there are wonders and mysteries, booby-trapped planets, alien technology, awe-inspiring panoramas, space and spaceships – and elephants! And manipulating its way through the heart of it is surely one of the universe’s most dysfunctional, astonishing families, the Akinya. Having completed the trilogy I now want to return to its beginning and re-read. Alastair Reynolds is one of my very favourite authors, every book is a much-anticipated event, and with Poseidon’s Wake he shows yet again why that is. I loved every single page.

My favourite SF novel of the year was not a difficult decision to make – I adored this book and urge you all to read it:

Children of Time by Adrian TchaikovskyAdrian Tchaikovsky’s worldbuilding is utterly superb. He creates a planet full of life so different to what we know. The complexity of animal society as presented here is extraordinary. The planet is beautiful but deadly and all the time we are aware of the poor humans in the sky above so in need of a safe harbour. As one race evolves and another becomes more desperate we can only hope that there comes a time when both can meet. The survival of the human species depends on it. Children of Time perfectly combines hard science fiction with something fantastical and grand. Life in space contrasts starkly with evolving life among the planet’s forests and in its seas, with chapters alternating between space and the planet. The role of Kern herself is also fascinating – madness, religion, hope and despair meet in Kern’s relationship with the inhabitants of the planet below but even the position of God isn’t stable. Adrian Tchaikovsky has created a fabulous novel, worthy of its extraordinary worlds. It is such a hard book to put down, it becomes a vital part of the reader’s day. I dreamt about it more than once. It is beautifully written, its imaginative scope is vast and its voice is powerful.

Honourable SF mentions…
Way Down Dark by J.P. Smythe
The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts
Touch by Claire North
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
Roboteer by Alex Lamb
The Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Historical Fiction
Again no particular order except for the last, here are my ten(ish) (all right, fifteen) favourite historical fiction titles of 2015.

Eagles at War by Ben KaneEagles at War, the tale of the infamous loss of Varus’s eagles in AD 9) reads like a grand epic of disaster, building up to its historical climax while maintaining the tension and drama throughout. When the ambush comes, it is spellbinding. Ben Kane knows what it’s like to march like a Roman soldier and his expertise and practical knowledge comes to the fore. He also knows the site of the battle and he paints its landscape vividly, bringing the past into the present. The battle scenes, which are absolutely astonishing, reminded me of when I watched The Deer Hunter as a teenager, giving me a similar sense of terror and expectation. This is quite a compliment because I haven’t read or seen anything from then until this which gave me that same pungent sense of the horror of war.

The Devil's Assassin by Paul Fraser CollardThe Devil’s Assassin is the third Jack Lark adventure and I expected much from it. Its predecessor The Maharajah’s General is an absolute delight – combining the perfect mix of boy’s own adventure, romance, exotic landscapes and foreign courts as well as mystery and intrigue. But instead of trying to compete with this, Paul Fraser Collard does something rather different with The Devil’s Assassin. The novel is just as exciting, if not more so in places, and the locations are just as exotic and well-visualised, but everything has got that little bit darker. There is ‘romance’ but Jack’s relationship with Sarah Draper, a senior officer’s wife, is not sentimental. It has much more to do with trying to find light amongst the darkness of war, a distraction from the constant shadow of death waiting around the next corner. The Devil’s Assassin is a wonderful novel. It’s a lot of fun to read, almost deceptively so because it also gave me a great deal to think about. This isn’t a period of history I normally read about but Paul Fraser Collard is no ordinary writer – I love the way that he brings this period of British military and imperial history to life, in all its colour, aggression, inequality, violence and vitality.

Scourge of Rome by Douglas JacksonThe crowning glory of Scourge of Rome is undoubtedly the siege of Jerusalem. Douglas Jackson does not spare us. This is a horrendous episode in Roman history, made even worse by the desperation of the city’s defenders, themselves torn apart by conflict and hatred. While we spend much of the time observing events from the Roman side, we do venture inside the city walls and meet leading figures from Jerusalem’s warring factions. Everyone is fighting to capture the powerfully symbolic Temple, everyone is prepared to see it burn. Scourge of Rome is a thoroughly exhilarating and pulse-thumping read. Douglas Jackson is a fine writer, both of action and of character and both play vital roles here. This is Roman historical fiction at its very best.

Rome's Lost Son by Robert FabbriRome’s Lost Son is the sixth novel in Robert Fabbri’s outstanding depiction of the life, career and times of one of Rome’s most successful (depending on how you judge success) emperors. Despite the fact that the novel is a sequel to those that went before, continuing the stories of some of Rome’s most fascinating leading figures, Rome’s Lost Son could be easily read as a stand alone novel. There are some scenes in Rome’s Lost Son that would be hard to forget, several of them involving the imperial family. There is deep tragedy. It’s a truly terrifying portrait and the colour that it adds to this novel is intense, just as previous novels were lit by their portrayals of earlier mad emperors and their kin. Robert Fabbri is achieving great things with this series. He manages to surprise me with each novel, always finding an unusual perspective or taking me down a totally unexpected path. The character of Vespasian builds in each book and the fact that we know he will finally become emperor adds to the marvel of how he survived these extraordinary years. This is a wonderful series and Rome’s Lost Son is one of its best with a conclusion that is outstanding.

The King's Assassin by Angus DonaldThe King’s Assassin might be the seventh book in Angus Donald’s superb Outlaw series but it breaks into new territory, escaping the past, and does, I think, work very well as a stand alone novel. The story continues to be narrated by a much older Alan but even his circumstances are changing from previous novels. As for the younger Alan, this is a crisis time and he’s even prepared to risk his friendship with Robin to fight for a cause he believes in. Alan is a powerful knight in his own right now and it’s perhaps not a surprise that there should be increasing friction with the dominating, paternal Robin Hood. Alan still makes mistakes and it never gets any easier to watch him make them. Robin Hood remains a more mysterious figure, keeping his deeper thoughts to himself, even from his wife, but he is never less than fascinating. He and Alan are wonderful creations, of which Angus Donald must be very proud. The story is marked by surprises, shocks and twists. The mood is perceptibly darker, Robin and Alan are older and well aware of their own mortality. Difficult times face them both, as indeed it does the whole land.

Dictator by Robert HarrisDictator is a beautifully-written novel, capturing so well the feel of a distant past that we can only imagine. Robert Harris does it for us. The city of Rome and, even more importantly, its people are alive on the page. Some of the most famous characters of Roman history become three-dimensional, with families, aspirations, a determined purpose. Cicero is caught in the middle of it all, sometimes controlling events but, more often than not, caught on their wave. He is always, though, a man to admire. He is brave and loyal, frustrated and proud, petulant and kind. Tiro is our eyes and, through them, Robert Harris allows us, through this marvellous trilogy which this book completes, to witness one of the most remarkable periods of history, taking us intimately into the lives of the people who shaped it.

The Taming of the Queen by Philippa GregoryThe Taming of the Queen is a novel of words rather than action. At the outset I wondered how the quality could be maintained through a substantial novel covering several years in which Kateryn Parr (Henry VII’s sixth wife) did – or was allowed to do – relatively little. But it is done perfectly. The tension of Henry and Kateryn’s marriage never drops, the insight never dulls. There are glimpses into moments from history that we know – such as the sinking of the Mary Rose and Henry’s war with France – but for much of the time this is a drama contained within the walls of a palace, primarily in its bed chambers and its feasting halls. The novel is rich in the colour and flavours of a Tudor court – the exotic endless feasting, the extravagance of the clothes, the furnishings and the buildings themselves. There is a strong sense of theatre. Just when I think that I’ve read all that I could ever want about the Tudors, especially Henry VIII, a book like this comes along.

The Emperor's Silver by Nick BrownAll of the novels in this series feature darker undertones, contrasting with the energetic action plots. This novel is no different. Roman slavery is here shown for the ugly word it is and although it’s dealt with in a non-lecturing way it’s a nonetheless powerful theme, not least because it makes Cassius, our hero, think very deeply about his relationship to his own slave Simo. The plot of The Emperor’s Silver is thoroughly entertaining with some exhilarating action sequences (especially involving aqueducts). The baddies are extremely horrible. But the book also provides a fascinating glimpse of life and religion within an eastern Roman town, its mix of local and centralised government, its military and its industry, with all of the greed, corruption – and sometimes idealism and good service – that this entails. It’s painful these days reading a novel that includes regular mention of Palmyra. This novel reminds us of the region’s Roman past and it is wonderful. I always look forward to this series every year and, yet again, Nick Brown has outdone himself. As for that ending…!

The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia HodgsonThe setting, location and prose might be wonderful but so too are the plot and characters. The Last Confession has a great plot that I would argue even outdoes the plot of Marshalsea. Now that we know Tom better the storyline is much less about him, crucial though he is to its development. This is a marvellously tangled web of secrets and lies and murder and sin. If only Tom would rise above it all. If only he hadn’t become involved in the first place. But we know Thomas Hawkins very well, he’s so beautifully drawn after all, and we know he can’t help himself. I’m not a big reader of historical fiction set during the Georgian period. It’s never been a time that interested me but Antonia Hodgson challenges all of that. Not only does she make me feel thoroughly immersed in the period but she also makes me want to find out more about it. She is to be congratulated for The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. The Devil in the Marshalsea is a superb novel that all fans of historical fiction should read and enjoy but The Last Confession is even better! It is a tremendous achievement. Antonia Hodgson is a fine writer indeed and will become, I sense, an increasingly significant one.

The Last Pilot by Benjamin HancockThe Last Pilot is Benjamin Johncock’s debut novel. It is simply wonderful – an extraordinary achievement. Its portrait of this little (and extremely unusual) part of America from the late 1940s until the 1960s feels completely authentic and real – quite a feat for a debut British author. Its prose is beautiful, capturing the excitement of the space race every bit as much as the constrained emotions of Jim and Grace, blending history and fiction seamlessly. Its treatment of dialogue is intriguing. I thought that I’d find the lack of speechmarks distracting but it worked extremely well. It adds an intimacy to the narrative which is quite unusual and very effective. This is a truly fascinating period in recent American history and Benjamin Johncock dramatises so well the cost of the great human endeavour that culminated in 1969’s Moon landing, a cost that extended beyond the famous and terrible accidents of the space race into the private lives of the daredevil pilot astronauts and their brave, resilient wives. I loved every page of this marvellous book, becoming hooked instantly. I won’t forget Jim, Grace and Florence.

A God in Ruins by Kate AtkinsonJust like its predecessor Life After Life, A God in Ruins is a novel about war. Teddy’s experiences as a pilot of Halifax bombers colours his entire life, affecting every relationship, and we are immersed in the depths of pain and turmoil that hide in Teddy’s heart. I’m not going to tell you here about what happens to Teddy, or about any of the people who move through this novel and Teddy’s life – each of them will grab hold of you, your feelings towards them will change, you will care deeply, maybe even dislike one or two of them intensely. But I will say that one of the reasons that I loved this book so much is because it made me think deeply about how little we might really know about those we love, how rewarded we would be if we dug a little, even if it also hurt a bit. The themes here are huge – life can be short; it is important to live that life fully and well. At the heart of this remarkable, wonderful book is Teddy – I’m struggling to think of any other character in a novel I’ve felt so drawn to. Prepare to laugh and cry – and possibly cry an awful lot – as you get to know this man as he lives through his life, teaching us as he goes about what the years have taught him about home, love, family, war, nature, duty and death. I am overwhelmed.

A Want of Kindness by Joanne LimburgThis is a beautifully written book that captures perfectly the language and rituals of Queen Anne’s age. It makes good use of original sources but it also recreates so well the wit and extravagance of the times. The chapter headings are wonderful and much of the language is amusing and often satirical. It is addictive to read, becoming more and more so as we become fully immersed in Anne’s world. Anne is a really rather unusual heroine. She is increasingly fat, stricken with gout, obsessed by food but it becomes clear that much of this is an escape mechanism because she is surrounded by a chaos that the elaborate rituals of the court cannot hide. Her family is enormously dysfunctional, Anne’s relationship with her parents is unconventional to say the least and William and Mary are hardly ‘normal’. My overall feeling for this novel was one of intense enjoyment. A Want of Kindness is a thoroughly immersive and sensitive read, witty and insightful, marrying historical fact and interpretation perfectly. A novel of the year for me, without doubt.

Marston Moor by Michael ArnoldMarston Moor is the sixth in Michael Arnold’s Civil War Chronicles but it is very different to any of its preceding novels. While I would suggest that you read the other novels first – if only because they’re fantastic and the finest novels on the English Civil War you could read – this latest book does work well as a stand alone. Much of the back history, especially that surrounding the relationship between the hero Stryker and Lisette, the Queen’s spy, is secondary to the events of these few summer weeks. The focus in Marston Moor is very tight, the mood is far more grim, Stryker is as much a witness of war as he is a participant, the story moves beyond his viewpoint. The story of the Battle of Marston Moor on 2 July 1644 is very much the subject of the novel, anything else is secondary. The battle is extraordinarily evoked – bloody, noisy, visceral, stinking, utterly terrifying. There is no adventure to be found here, only men desperate to survive. It is ugly and deadly. A magnificent novel.

Bloodline by Conn IgguldenBloodline is historical storytelling at its finest – the Wars of the Roses are brought out from the past and made fresh because they are presented as raw, violent and deeply emotional. This extraordinary family is wiping itself out at the most horrendous cost for the people of England. We are not spared the utter outrage of these battles. While nobles are executed – no hostages were taken by these vengeful princes – the commonman is slaughtered in his thousands. The characters are sensitively drawn, combining knightly flamboyance, youthful energy and sad, depressed rage. Edward IV stands head and shoulders above the others, a giant in size and action, while Henry VI appears as some pitiful, little figure, well-meaning but so ill-suited to wear his crown. Edward is no perfect warrior, however. He is easily led and flattered. He needs to be contained. Margaret continues to challenge our sympathies while Warwick manages to raise them. Warwick is a wonderful creation. You can almost see his thought processes as he tries to deal with his own agenda while coping with his personal grief and the wavering of a capricious young king. There is a considerable amount of heart in Bloodline. It’s an exciting read – these are the most incredible times, after all – but it’s enriched by insight and sensitivity. There is a melancholy air to it but that seems especially appropriate to its themes. Conn Iggulden is such a fine writer, well-skilled at immersing his reader in the past and making it relevant. I’ve read most of Conn Iggulden’s novels over the years and, with no doubt at all, I can declare Bloodline my favourite.

As with science fiction, my favourite historical fiction of the novel was a clear choice from the moment I closed its pages:

Now is the Time by Melvyn BraggMelvyn Bragg’s prose in Now is the Time is wondrous. I can’t praise it enough – I don’t think I’ve read anything else this year that matches it and that’s not lightly said. It isn’t easy to explain but for me the narrative and its phrasing manages to be both modern and medieval. There is also almost a hindsight in parts of the novel, colouring its language, making the events seem even more momentous and significant. Its sense of history is strong and vital but so too is its insight into character and injustice, something that is timeless. Medieval London is vividly brought to life but Now is the Time most excels in its dialogue, in its characters’ reflections and contemplations. History comes alive in Now is the Time. Now is indeed the time – the events of the past are powerfully shown to have relevance to our own world. At times it reads like a call to arms while at other times it reminds us of the almost inevitable failure of such an enterprise. It is compassionate and gentle. There is idealism co-existing alongside melancholy, and cruelty feeding upon hope. Now is the Time didn’t just mesmerise me with its utterly wonderful writing it also made me think and I am enormously grateful to have read it. This book exemplifies the relevance of historical fiction, going beyond the confines of genre.

Honourable mentions…
Cleopatra’s Shadows by Emily Holleman
Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans
The Sword of Attila by David Gibbins
Master of War: Defiant Unto Death by David Gilman
The Silent Hours by Cesca Major
Mathew’s Tale by Quentin Jardine
The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland
Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams
Thunder of the Gods by Anthony Riches
If You Go Away by Adele Parks

Thrillers and crime fiction
It was almost impossible to whittle this category down but here it is, with my favourite at the end.

The Missing and the Dead by Stuart MacBrideThis year I read my first Stuart MacBride novel – The Missing and the Dead. I was instantly hooked and have since read three more and bought up the entire Logan series. I adore it. The success of the Logan novels is a result of far more than the excellent plots and the novels’ formidable, expert structures. The series is addictive and habit-forming largely because of the fantastic characters, their interaction, and the writing, which manages to shock while also making the reader, at least this one, laugh out loud, frequently. This style has developed over the books and a good reason for this is probably the increasingly dominant presence of Logan’s DCI, Roberta Steel. Steel is, with no doubt at all, an utterly appalling woman. There’s barely a moment when she’s not having a good old scratch, hurling abuse, flirting or trying to get out of something by making Logan do it instead. She is priceless, irrepressible, and the banter between Steel and Logan is thoroughly entertaining. It is possibly true that at times she becomes too much and the banter takes over, especially in the later books, but I can forgive her an awful lot. She must be such fun to write. The relationship between Logan and Steel dominates the later books in a way that makes the earliest books very different. When I started falling for the Logan series I heard the term ‘Tartan Noir’ for the first time. It is most definitely true that Stuart MacBride is a master of it but the appeal of this series goes far beyond labels. Brilliantly written, fantastically plotted and structured, and full of life, humour, bleakness and death, they offer me the perfect promise for those long wintery reading nights.

No Other Darkness by Sarah HilaryIn No Other Darkness we meet Marnie Rome and her DS Noah Jake for the second time and it’s very good to be back with them. It is a relief after the traumatic start to spend time with the order and method of Marnie’s investigation, to watch out for clues and lies. I won’t reveal where they lead us as this is a plot that you must watch unwind for yourself. Its ending, though, when it comes, is nigh on perfect.. Sarah Hilary is such a good writer, the dialogue is particularly strong and the third person narrative mixes well with the intermittent first person memories from the past that puzzle and tantalise as the novel goes on. No Other Darkness takes us, and DI Marnie Rome, to some dark places but there’s a real warmth and care in Sarah Hilary’s handling of these difficult themes. It is also extremely difficult to put down. I thought this would be good and I wasn’t disappointed. What a fabulous novel.

The Revelation Code by Andy McDermott Nina and Eddie are back! This adventure is an exhilarating ride. The pages race through the fingers as we travel around the world, visiting some archaeological sites and museums that never quite know what hit them. Andy McDermott is great at presenting car/boat/plane chases and we get a host of them here. The extreme action is matched by the humour. Few people can pun like Eddie can pun, and few people could put up with it as well as Nina can. But alongside the humour there is also darkness and I love this side to the Nina and Eddie series. People we’re attached to can die, there are no guarantees that everything will work out, and Nina and Eddie are not invincible. You can count on a few tears being shed in one of these novels and The Revelation Code is no exception. This is such a strong series and I can never get enough of it. The Revelation Code is a fine addition to it, combining a great plot and mystery with a new phase in Eddie and Nina’s relationship. I cannot wait to see what happens next. Nothing will be the same again.

Hidden by Emma KavanaghThe opening scene in Hidden is shocking and abrupt. It introduces us to people who have been dead for just minutes, people that we will get to know and care for as we travel back through the events of the preceding week. We can be in doubt how the novel will finish. We see its bloody denouement on the very first page but when we finally reach these scenes again at the novel’s end we are all much wiser. Because we know what’s coming and because the chapter headings tell us how many days we have left before the shooting the tension builds like a ticking bomb. Hidden is Emma’s second novel and it follows an excellent debut, Falling. I enjoyed Falling very much indeed but I think Hidden is even better. It’s tense, tight and disturbing (in a good way) and clearly written by an author who knows what she’s writing about. Its structure is particularly clever and the author is to be congratulated on controlling it so well. There are a fair few psychological thrillers out there at the moment but this one most definitely deserves your attention.

Death in the Rainy Season by Anna JaquieryI cannot praise Death in the Rainy Season enough. It’s difficult to know what to commend the most – the fascinatingly intricate and sensitive mystery, the rich array of personalities that our detective Morel must get to know, whose lives he must turn upside down, or the complex and mesmerising character of Serge Morel himself. This thoughtful and clever man carries so much on his shoulder, he is humane and kind, and he is calmly ruthless in his determination to uncover the truth from among all these secrets. And then there is Cambodia itself. The character of Cambodia contributes to making this one of the most atmospheric mysteries that I have read for months. It is beautiful, steamy, hot and mysterious. But there is also great darkness in its recent past. Morel uses what little spare time he has in Phnom Penh to renew ties with his mother’s family and it is a painful affair. Morel must learn about the crimes committed against his own family on Pol Pot’s Killing Fields just as he must also become aware how this brutality affected Savit, the local police officer he finds so hard to work with, as well as its impact on the country itself. Some dark themes are explored in Death in the Rainy Season, not all of them belonging to the past, and they cast a shadow over the lives of everyone in this novel. More and more is revealed about past and present as the novel unravels its secrets. Finally, there is Anna Jaquiery’s writing, which is clear, evocative and beautiful. Characters, setting and mystery are deftly brought to life around us. I found Death in the Rainy Season to be a most compelling and immersive read, hard to put down and hard not to think about.

I Know Who Did It by Steve MosbyI Know Who Did It is, without doubt, one of the most thought-provoking, complex and satisfying crime novels I’ve read. It is far more than a straightforward whodunnit, in many ways that’s almost secondary. The focus throughout is on the minds of these three detectives, especially Groves and Nelson, as they endeavour to cope with the worst that life has thrown at them, trying to deal with the present, and find resolution, each in their different ways. As Steve Mosby lets us in to the minds of Groves and Nelson, it is impossible not to care for both men but particularly for David Groves as he begins to find clues to his son’s disappearance all those years ago. There’s nothing he can do but follow where he is led. The characterisation in I Know Who Did It is second to none and so too is its elaborate plotting. There are moments here of utter shock and I did actually gasp out loud at a couple of its fabulous twists. But while it’s gripping throughout, it’s also an emotional read and the novel becomes increasingly intense especially during its final third. I couldn’t put the novel down at this point. I was desperate to find out what happened.

Die Again by Tess GerritsenDie Again is the eleventh Rizzoli and Isles novel by Tess Gerritsen. For me, though, it was my first. I was initially drawn to Die Again by its African theme and this certainly didn’t disappoint (I’ve spent time on safari but thank heavens I hadn’t read this first!). But there is much more to this book that made me not want to put it down. The characters of Jane and Maura are fabulous. They also mean that Die Again is not a dark novel, despite its crimes. The story itself is fantastic. I was glued to it. This is a highly addictive novel. I’m usually good at guessing who’s done what in a mystery but I was completely flummoxed by this one. I made lots of guesses, confident I’d worked it out, but I was foiled more than once. Millie is such an attractive character and her voice adds enormously to the novel, its narrative divided between Millie’s first person account and the third person telling of the Rizzoli and Isles case. Tess Gerritsen is clearly a master of her craft and I can understand why she has so many fans. She writes so well, her storytelling thriller-plotting talent backed up by her medical knowledge. Immediately after reading Die Again (an experience which involved staying up until well after 2am as I was unable to put it down), I bought two more in the series. I am hooked.

The Martyr's Curse by Scott MarianiI am a huge Ben Hope fan and in 2015 I was spoiled with not one but two new Hope thrillers. The Martyr’s Curse was, by a slim margin, my favourite of the two and gives Ben Hope – and any new readers – a clean slate to begin afresh. I’m not going to say anything about the mystery here but it’s a corker. Suffice to say, the villain is fabulously nasty, the locations are vividly painted and the action scenes are adrenalin pumped. Arguably, The Martyr’s Curse is the most violent of the series. Stakes are extraordinarily high and there’s nothing that Ben Hope won’t do to stop the baddies in their tracks and some of it isn’t pleasant. There is a female lead and she plays a significant part in the novel as well as in helping Ben keep his cool. As things turned progressively nasty I was grateful for her presence, as no doubt were the baddies left scrambling in the dirt. It was no surprise to discover that The Martyr’s Curse is a thrilling adventure of the highest quality and it kept me on the edge of my seat from start to finish. It was fantastic to spend more time with Ben Hope, flawed and wonderful as he is, in this the finest of all his adventures.

Into the Fire by Manda ScottInto the Fire combines two thoroughly satisfying and fascinating investigations, one in the mid 15th century and the other in the present day, moving deceptively easily between the two. The use of present tense is brilliantly deployed, making the past as immediate as the present, the characters equally alive and relevant. The stories are wonderful, the characters are believable and real, the relationships between them complex and surprising. The thriller element of the novel ensures that we have twists and shocks while its historical side transports us into a past world that we can taste and smell around us. The fact that much of the story, past and present, takes place in one city, Orléans, also serves to bring the two worlds of the story together while stressing the modern significance of Joan of Arc and the enigma that continues to surround this woman soldier, now a saint. At the novel’s heart, though, is the extraordinary young woman – the Maid, Joan of Arc – who emerges alive here out of the myth as I hoped she would, the noise of the battle contrasting with the quiet fervour of her determination, the devotion of her friendships, the loyalty of her men, the treachery of her lord, the brutal legality or otherwise of her interrogators, all set against the fire of the flames. Fire fuels both elements of this novel as the title suggests. It threatens both women, both worlds.

The following is my favourite thriller of the year – it is fantastic to see the beginning of a new series from Simon Toyne that is every bit as superb as the Sanctus trilogy, if not more so.

Solomon Creed by Simon ToyneSimon Toyne is a fantastic storyteller. His thrillers depict imaginary places that feel vividly real. In the Sanctus novels, Ruin was a perfectly imagined Near Eastern city, a religious centre and tourist destination. Now, in Solomon Creed, we have Redemption, a small desert town, cut off from the present, alive with the spirit of the Wild West and populated by characters and mystery that do its striking setting and powerful atmosphere full justice. Events unfold in the twistiest of fashions, keeping this reader at least on the edge of their seat until well into the night. Solomon Creed is an enormously clever, exciting and dramatic thriller. Its shifting perspectives, voices moving from the past to the present, the shimmer between the known and the unknown, contribute to one of the most atmospheric reads that I have had in a long time. Solomon Creed himself is the epitome of the intriguing hero, a mystery as much to himself as he is to us.

Honourable mentions..
Tenacity by J.S. Law
Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller
The Silent Room by Mari Hannah
Follow Me by Angela Clarke
The Bone Labyrinth by James Rollins
After the Fire by Jane Casey
The Life I Left Behind by Colette McBeth
In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward
Stasi Child by David Young
The Infidel Stain by M.J. Carter
Hunted by Paul Finch
The Ends of the Earth by Robert Goddard
The British Lion by Tony Schumacher
Burnt Paper Sky by Gilly Macmillan

And finally…

I must also sing the praises of The Death House by Sarah Pinborough, a fine novel that seemed to defy all my attempts to classify it, and likewise The Way of Sorrows by Jon Steele – a truly outstanding conclusion to a wonderful trilogy. As for horror, without doubt my favourite of the year is Day Four by Sarah Lotz – utterly terrifying and brilliant.

2015 was a great reading year – it definitely had an edge on 2014 in my opinion. Here’s hoping that 2016 is every bit as rich and wonderful.

A whopper of a post! If you got to the end of it, thank you! And here’s wishing us all a happy, healthy and peaceful 2016!

2013 – Book review of the year – Part Two

And we’re back! After yesterday’s post, the first part of my Book review of 2013, it’s time for part two (fortified by my birthday lunch). The list is in no particular order except for the final book which is my personal favourite of the year. I must also repeat this from yesterday: I’m grateful to all publishers and publicists for all their support and hugely appreciated books, to my fellow book bloggers for their inspiration and friendship, to authors for their talent and words, and to everyone who took the time to read the blog, retweet a link or make a comment. It’s been a pleasure! On with the second batch of my favourite books from 2013.

Angel City by Jon SteeleAngel City by Jon Steele
Review. This second novel in a series begun so memorably with The Watchers, is set in a world in which angels walk the earth side by side with demons. Some humans, such as those we met in The Watchers, have the gift – or curse – to witness their struggle for supremacy, to mark the light of creation in the eyes of angels. Most people, though, live in ignorance and barely know the world they live in. Mixing fantasy with thriller and police drama, Angel City is powerful stuff with rich characters we care deeply for – Kat, her young son Max and Harper. Jon Steele is a wonderful writer. I can’t think of another like him. It’s possible that his background as a war journalist has given him an extra insight into the innate powers of men and women to damage and care for one another. His prose veers between immediacy and poetry. It is bloody and beautiful. It’s hard to imagine caring for characters more than those we are presented with here. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the marrying of fantasy and reality. I’m no fan of fantasy fiction, on the contrary, but I think I love Jon Steele’s novels so much because he brings the fantastical into our lives as a powerful ‘explanation’ of some of the horrific acts that man commits against himself, which we see day in and day out on the news. Extraordinary, enriched with humanity, and not easy to explain!

The Orpheus Descent by Tom HarperThe Orpheus Descent by Tom Harper
Review. When archaeologist Lily disappears from the excavated remains of an ancient drowned city in southern Italy, we embark on a journey alongside her husband Jonah that will astonish us. The Orpheus Descent is a novel that tells two stories. In parallel to Jonah and Lily’s story is that of Plato. In the years following Socrates’ murder or assassination, Plato’s writings underwent a significant change as his philosophical view of life, love, beauty and virtue shifted. Tom Harper here gives us one possible reason for this. Plato is also on a quest. The two stories entwine like fibres of gold. As the novel progresses the strands knit closer but for much of the time they are linked by things wonderfully described and evoked – landscape, mythology, love, religion, desire, philosophy, jealousy, virtue. The Orpheus Descent is a superb reworking of some of the most familiar and beautiful myths of ancient Greece – Orpheus’ hunt for Eurydice in the Underworld among others. The landscapes of ancient and newer Greece and Italy, as well as the mythological landscape, are brought alive by the journeys of Jonah and Plato and the parallels between their two stories are awash with similarities and echoes. The novel is both utterly enchanting and brain testing in the best of ways.

Stormbird by Conn IgguldenStormbird by Conn Iggulden
Review. Conn Iggulden appeared in yesterday’s first part of the post for The Blood of Gods, the conclusion to his Emperor series. Stormbird marks the beginning of a new series set in a different time, the Wars of the Roses. It is every bit as superb as anything Conn has written before and without doubt is one of my three favourite historical fiction novels of the year. Its hardback also has the most beautiful cover I’ve seen in 2013. This is a novel full of violence, battle and shock, but, for me, despite that, the most memorable figure is young Margaret of Anjou. There is not a trace of sentimentality in her treatment. But not all of the novel is to do with the rich and powerful. There are displaced longbowmen and disgruntled peasants and much of Stormbird follows their rich and full lives, especially those of archer Thomas Woodchurch and his son, and of real-life rebel John Cade who led his army of of the dispossessed and hungry into London itself. What these people have to deal with is measured against the acts that they inflict on others in their vengeance. It makes things complicated and rewarding to read. There is a moment with John Cade that made me weep and that is testament to Iggulden’s powers of humanising these long-dead people. History gives us an idea of what is to come in the next novel and in Conn Iggulden’s hands it will soar.

Shadow on the Crown by Patricia BracewellShadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell
Review. One of the key events of the decades leading up to William of Normandy’s transformation from Bastard to Conqueror was the slaughter of Danish settlers by the citizens of English towns, incited by King Aethelred, on St Brice’s Day in 1002. This massacre, or rather the crisis that provoked it, lies at the heart of Shadow on the Crown. But, refreshingly and completely effectively, the tale is told not from the point of view of soldiers or kings, although we watch their actions, but from that of Aethelred’s second wife and only queen, Emma of Normandy. She has to endure a great deal, from her brute of a husband and from herself – it doesn’t pay to love where she shouldn’t. Patricia Bracewell doesn’t romanticise Emma at all. This is a believable, real young woman, living a thousand years away. Shadow on the Crown is a wonderful novel – luxurious, evocative yet dark. Its descriptions of buildings and places, mostly now lost over the last thousand years, brings this time to life. The hardback is another beautiful book.

The Far Shore by Nick BrownThe Far Shore by Nick Brown
Review. Roman imperial secret service agent Cassius Corbulo is back! And with Cassius is his gentle Christian servant Simo and his bodyguard, freed gladiator Indavara. This third adventure in the Agent of Rome series is is one of the most gripping novels of Roman historical fiction that I have read. It is heated up with two equally dramatic, harrowing episodes that were impossible for me to put down. Its sea voyage is so intense and horrible and brilliantly described that I could feel my own stomach churn, let alone that of Cassius and the others. This is then matched by the fascinating depiction of life on the very edges of late Roman rule on its remote North African edge. This is the late 3rd century AD when indigenous tribes were reclaiming lands across the empire, aided by a succession of fleeting, corrupt, embattled governments in Rome. Cassius gets a taste of this first hand in Cyrenaica. A dangerous place at a dangerous time. Quite apart from the edge of seat action, a great appeal of this series is the trio at its heart – Cassius is an unlikely hero. As he admits, being a secret service agent hardly endears him to strangers, and his youth and arrogance might seem charming at times but at others they get him into all sorts of trouble. The novel tantalisingly delivers some of Indavara’s past. As for the baddie… Overall, The Far Shore is a thoroughly enjoyable, fast and furious, often funny Roman adventure, populated by people I care about and set in a world in which demons are at work.

Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntoshLove Minus Eighty by Will McKintosh
Review. Set in a vaguely anonymous and heavily altered New York City a hundred years or so in the future, we are presented with a world gone social media mad. Life is lived in front of an audience of screens, the projections of online voyeurs, who follow the popular around, listening in to ‘private’ conversations and moments. Life and death matter far less than how much money you have, how beautiful you are and how many ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ you have. Should you have these then death is actually little more than an inconvenient intermission in an otherwise long and spoilt existence. You will be frozen and then instantly revived, your ailments at least temporarily held at bay and your injuries fixed. If you are female and beautiful but without money then it is possible that you might find yourself in a form of frozen living death, one of the Bridesicles, awoken for brief expensive ‘dates’ with the type of man who would want to revive a dead woman to be his wife or, more accurately, sex-slave. As all good dystopias should, Love Minus Eighty builds a well-realised and extraordinary world. The layers of city reflect the layers of social class. This is a world in which you are classed by the technology you carry on your body, your social skin, and how many conversations you can conduct simultaneously. Yet this contrasts with the people themselves. Many of the characters we meet here want the same things as you and me, no more or less. This thoroughly enjoyable book has some big themes but they are not delved into too deeply. Instead, this is a fast, easy to read and addictive novel.

Rome's Fallen Eagle by Robert FabbriRome’s Fallen Eagle by Robert Fabbri
Review. There are two events in particular from Roman history that have always fascinated me – the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which resulted in the loss of Varus, his three legions and their eagles and the Claudian conquest of Britannia. In Rome’s Fallen Eagle, the fourth in Robbert Fabbri’s excellent series on Vespasian, these events are both key and the result is a novel that I did not want to let out of my sight. From the very first chapter, set in a blood-soaked Roman theatre, ravaged by Caligula’s maddened, grief-stricken Germanic bodyguards, Rome’s Fallen Eagle grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and hauls him or her through the most dangerous fringes of the empire, made worse by the scrambling for power amongst those closest to Claudius and his wife Messalina, and into the unknown. Rome’s Fallen Eagle is one of the most exciting novels I’ve read in 2013. The action does not let up a jot as one adventure turns into another while all the time we are in the company of well-rounded and colourful personalities, Roman and barbarian. I have enjoyed the whole series but without doubt Rome’s Fallen Eagle is my favourite. It is never less than compelling, it is always well-written and time and time again jaw dropping. I couldn’t read its pages fast enough. The ebook was published in September 2013, with the hardback edition due out on 2 January 2014.

The Serene Invasion by Eric BrownThe Serene Invasion by Eric Brown
Review. Alien invasion – not a concept that conjures up images of calm, peace and non-violence. In Eric Brown’s The Serene Invasion our preconceptions, not to mention those of the billions of men, women and children on Earth, are challenged by the arrival of a species that is intent solely on fostering peace across a planet on the verge of losing life thanks to its human inhabitants. The Serene has done it before for other worlds. Now it’s time for Earth to be put in its place. From the very beginning, The Serene Invasion pulls at the imagination, provoking contemplation about mankind’s relationship to violence and aggression. Most significantly, is it inherent? Alongside this, as the novel moves through the decades, are descriptions of wondrous cities – and they are beautiful and stunning to imagine – as well as transformed landscapes. This is a fantastic book. I loved everything about it. It starts off with intense action and drama and then it transforms before our eyes. Set only a few decades in our future, it hints at a message that we should look about us before it is too late. But, above all else, The Serene Invasion is absorbing and uplifting, driven by characters I cared about and full of memorable, often beautiful, moments.

The Abominable by Dan SimmonsThe Abominable by Dan Simmons
Review. In 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irving were briefly glimpsed tantalisingly close to Everest’s unconquered summit. They disappeared into the mountain’s ‘smoke’ and were never seen alive again. The announcement of their presumed deaths in the London papers was accompanied by the post script notice of the deaths of two other climbers on the mountain – Lord Percival Bromley and Kurt Meyer, who were reported to have been swept away in an avalanche. Lord Percy’s mother is tormented by thoughts of her son lost on Everest and so she agrees to support an unofficial expedition to Everest in 1925. Seamlessly mingling fact and fiction, The Abominable by Dan Simmons presents the Everest expedition of Richard Deacon, aka The Deacon, once the friend and climbing partner of Mallory, and our narrator Jake Perry, a young rock climber, and their small, unusual and characterful team of European climbers and Sherpas. But there is so much more to this spectacular and luxuriously chunky novel than those bare bones. Over the course of almost 700 pages, Dan Simmons convinces you that you are back in the 1920s, this heyday of mountain exploration. I was so sorry to finish The Abominable. It was an emotional reading experience. I have rarely felt so absorbed into a work of fiction, so steeped in its mood. I could feel the chill and I shared the fear as well as the exhilaration of a particularly perilous section of climb achieved. I didn’t find the pace slow. I found it to be luxurious and rich. Surely there can be few literary portraits of Everest (or its courageous, obsessed, astonishing climbers) as vivid and riveting as this. A completely satisfying mix of history, realism and fiction.

On the Steel Breeze by Alastair ReynoldsOn the Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds
Review. As men and women explore space and settle new worlds, increasingly knotted to technology, they put at risk everything that is, or has been, beautiful about the Earth and life on it – free thought, independent purpose, animals and nature, healthy breathable skies and even family ties. In On the Steel Breeze, the distant sequel to Blue Remembered Earth, these themes are explored even further and taken to new places as humanity confronts a time of great crisis. In On the Steel Breeze, we follow the life stories of three women, descendants of the remarkable and celebrated Eunice Akinya and her daughter Sunday, so well known to us from the previous novel. All is not that straightforward, though, because these three women each share the same name, Chiku, and their ties are unusual and profound. We revisit places and characters from Blue Remembered Earth. For me, this meant a welcome return to the Merfolk of the United Acquatic Nations as well as sinister machine-controlled Mars. But added to these are the new worlds, especially Crucible and the holoships, and thrilling episodes on other planets and environments. On the Steel Breeze might be visionary but it’s also a thoroughly exciting adventure, with edge-of-seat scenes scattered throughout the book. Parts of it are breathtaking, not just for the splendour of the backdrop. I’m delighted to report that elephants make a return in the new novel and they are given a much more important role in our future.

Sword of Rome by Douglas JacksonSword of Rome by Douglas Jackson
Review. Gaius Valerius Verrens returns. A Hero of Rome, Valerius is a man and soldier well-known for his false wooden fist, his right hand lost in the service of Rome, the cost of a last stand against the fury of Boudicca. In this fourth adventure or mission, Valerius is caught up in the whimsical death of Nero in AD 68 and its bloody aftermath. Valerius is known for his valour and for his morality, not to mention that most dangerous of attributes – loyalty – and having rejected the throne himself he becomes the tool of those who won’t. Servant of Otho but friend of Vitellius, Valerius is sent by Otho to persuade Vitellius not to challenge his new rule and not to march on Rome. As towns, districts and legions choose their allegiances and prepare to make a stand or advance in threat, Valerius is caught in the middle. What makes it worse is that there is a man literally after his blood and as Valerius moves across the empire on his mission to broker peace, this enemy is a constant terrier at his heels. More pleasurable for Valerius, is the appeal of Domitia, first met in Avenger of Rome and here back to give Valerius something much closer to his heart to fight for. Douglas Jackson has an incredible ability to put the reader into the mind of his Hero of Rome Valerius and the result is a powerful rollercoaster that towards the end put my heart and stomach into my mouth. The aftermath of Nero’s death was a dangerous time for Rome and here we experience exactly why. Superb.

Proxima by Stephen BaxterProxima by Stephen Baxter
Review. I have read many fine books in 2013 but with no doubt at all, Proxima is my favourite book of the year. It has everything and more that I want from a novel, whatever its genre, and by the end I was left breathless and more than a little upset that it was finished. Earth is in trouble, the centre (in a manner of speaking) of a solar system divided between the west and China. While China mines the resources of the asteroid belt and the more distant planets, the west colonises the closer planets. But when a new energy source is discovered on Mercury that permits interstellar travel the enormous opportunities that this grants to one faction are matched by the danger of the ensuing intensified cold war. Meanwhile, a ship full of rejects from Earth and Mars uses this new technology to reach Proxima Centauri, our nearest habitable planet, four light years away. Their goal is to settle the planet and do the necessary hard work of establishing a basic social infrastructure before others can ultimately join them to reap the benefits. Their main job, though, is to breed – to create new generations of human beings on a new Earth. To start all over again. This is the goal and the dream but how different and harrowing is the reality. Proxima is a novel that almost overflows with wonders. It contains not just one story but several. It takes place on Proxima Centauri but also on Earth, Mercury and in the distant asteroid mining settlements. The lives we encounter over a considerable number of years become increasingly important to the reader. Looming over all the personal tales of hardship and endeavour and love is the terrifying cold shadow of potential war between east and west which, if it comes to pass, could mean nothing less than the extinction of the human race. The writing is elegant, informative, exact and visionary. It has scenes that took this reader’s breath away. The characters are always interesting – even the original AIs and especially the ColU robotic unit. Proxima is so full of surprises that it never releases its grip. It is packed with ‘wow’ moments and there are other moments which made me weep with how perfect or profound they felt to me. This was not an emotion-free reading experience. Incredible.

Honourable mentions
Picking 25 books from a total of 146 novels read was not an easy task and there are plenty of other books I could have added to the list.

Brothers’ Fury by Giles Kristian
The Poisoned Island by Lloyd Shepherd
Assassin’s Reign by Michael Arnold
Reviver by Seth Patrick
The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
The Keystone by A.M. Dean
The Excalibur Codex by James Douglas
The Eagle’s Vengeance by Anthony Riches
Fields of Blood by Ben Kane
Grail Knight by Angus Donald
The Dire Earth Cycle by Jason M. Hough
Crash by Guy Haley
The Blood Crows by Simon Scarrow
The Chimera Secret by Dean Crawford
At Break of Day by Elizabeth Speller

Of all the older novels I read in 2013, Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds is, I think, my favourite, followed by Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey and, for historical fiction, The Queen’s Vow by C.W. Gortner.

I would like to wish you all a very Happy New Year and a wonderful book-filled 2014!

2013 – Book review of the year – Part One

2013 has been a fantastic year for books! I’ve been very fortunate, reading a mix of freshly published titles as well as older books off the teetering to be read pile. I have read 146 novels this year, including ten books for my Arthur C. Clarke Reading Challenge and about thirty backlist titles from favourite authors. I’ve largely stayed where I’m most happy, reading historical fiction, science fiction and thrillers. There’s been little need to stray – the standard has been superb throughout the year and I consider myself most fortunate to have spent so much of my free time nose-deep in a five star read. I’m grateful to all publishers and publicists for all their support and hugely appreciated books, to my fellow book bloggers for their inspiration and friendship, to authors for their talent and words, and to everyone who took the time to read the blog, retweet a link or make a comment. It’s been a pleasure!

Before we crack on with 2014, which, judging by the size and quality of my 2014 reading pile, is set to sail very fair indeed, here is a selection of my favourite reads from the last twelve months. The list – which has settled on 25 books – will be divided into two with my most loved read of the year ending the second post tomorrow. Otherwise, they’re not listed in any particular order. So, with no further ado, here is PART ONE.

Part two is now up to read here.

The Agincourt Bride by Joanna HicksonThe Agincourt Bride by Joanna Hickson
Review. The first novel I reviewed in 2013 proved to be one of its highlights. Not surprisingly, its sequel, The Tudor Bride looks set to follow the same course in 2014 (review to follow in the next couple of days). Joanna Hickson brings to life most beautifully the life of Catherine de Valois, a princess of France given to Henry V during the aftermath of Agincourt. The Agincourt Bride focuses on Catherine’s early life and betrothal, mixing her own story with that of her faithful maid and companion Mette. The challenges that Catherine had to take on at such a young age are not to be underestimated and, while she is depicted flaws and all, her courage and vulnerability are never in doubt. The warmth of the novel overwhelmed me, just as its sequel did, and I look forward to reading every word Joanna Hickson writes in the future.

Wool by Hugh HoweyThe Wool Trilogy by Hugh Howey
Reviews of Wool, Shift, Dust. A highlight of 2013 without doubt has been Hugh Howey’s masterly Wool trilogy. Set in a future where mankind must burrow into the earth for survival, Wool, Shift and Dust were for me the dystopian novels of the year. Character driven throughout, the trilogy is teeming with revelations and packed with thrills. It is dense with atmosphere and in places utterly horrifying, confronting a host of phobias. It is also intensely sad on occasion. I have loved this series. The prose is immediate, attention-seeking and precise. The worldbuilding is second to none but so too are the characters. By the third novel, we are extremely fond of some characters while others are proving increasingly to be dreaded. The character development of many is wonderful and intricate. There are interludes which seem to have little impact on the end result but they all serve to make this dystopian horror more real. Above all else, the Wool trilogy is a puzzle and, I’m delighted to say, none of its pieces are missing. I can’t recommend this series enough.

Queen's Gambit by Elizabeth FremantleQueen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Freemantle
Review. In Queen’s Gambit, Elizabeth Fremantle takes on the extraordinary figure of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s wife and widow, who lived more in her forty years than most women of her age, and she does her proud. Narrated in the present tense, we are thrust into the heart of the drama where, more often than not, Katherine lived on the very knife’s edge of catastrophe. Another figure strides through the pages, the monstrous King Henry, tormented by pain, disease and cruelty. Even though history tells us what happened, there is still a feeling of tension underlying the events, reminding us that it could have ended so differently. As the novel continues, one can only wish it had. Katherine is a remarkable figure here – modern in many ways and yet caught in her time.

Traitor's Field by Robert WiltonTraitor’s Field by Robert Wilton
Review. Traitor’s Field is a masterly combination of intellect and heart. The Civil War is brought alive in these pages and it is a book to savour. It comprises short segments with ‘reprints’ of documents, some using 17th-century fonts unfamiliar to modern readers. Characters and plotlines are only slowly unwound. There are plenty of action sequences but all the time you need to be alert for clues to the wider picture. The writing itself is stunning – questioning, disjointed, evocative, mixing tenses. The prose gives us no protection, it thrusts us into the heart of it all. Thoroughly rewarding and engrossing throughout, Traitor’s Field is a masterpiece.

Pharaoh by David Gibbins
Pharaoh by David GibbinsReview. Advertised as a thriller, Pharaoh is much more than one would expect. It is instead a historical adventure of the highest order, following a secret mission by Major Edward Mayne of the Royal Engineers in the 1880s to race up the Nile to reach General Gordon in Khartoum before he can be taken prisoner. Mixed with a present day quest by Jack Howard to uncover a mystery surrounding the ancient pharaoh Akhenaten, Gibbins here brings this enigmatic Egyptian world to life. He reveals how almost alien this environment must have felt to the Victorian British (and Canadian) soldiers dragging their boats through the crocodile-infested waters by bringing in glimpses and clues to the exotic ancient history that surrounded these men on their dangerous journey. A superb novel and I look forward to its sequel.

The Last King of Lydia by Tim LeachThe Last King of Lydia by Tim Leach
Review. Despite his unimaginable riches, Croesus, King of Lydia, has been vanquished. In 547 BC, Croesus sits upon a throne of wood erected on top of a pyre, his white robes smeared with oil, quick to catch a flame. Watching him is Cyrus, King of the Persians, now lord of an even greater empire thanks to the military weakness of Croesus. Croesus uses these last moments to reflect on an encounter with Solon, an old politician and philosopher from Athens. Having shown him his treasure rooms, Croesus asked the old man who he believed to be the happiest man alive. Croesus was shocked to discover that this man was not him. All this wealth, which Croesus believed must make him the happiest man alive, counted for nothing if he didn’t live and die well. It’s only now, waiting for the flames to catch, that Croesus begins to understand the waste. The Last King of Lydia is Tim Leach’s first novel and this is an extraordinary fact because it is without doubt one of the finest pieces of writing I have read for a long time. Not just as historical fiction, at which it excels, but for its exquisite depiction of man’s search for contentment and happiness, a good life as well as a good death when the time for that is right. Not just for kings but also for those who serve them, their slaves as well as their wives and children. Magnificent.

The Tower by Simon Toyne
The Tower by Simon ToyneReview. Over the last three years, Simon Toyne’s Sanctus trilogy has been a source of great anticipation and pleasure. It stands out, not just for its fine storytelling and vivid characterisation but also for the world in which it is set. Simon Toyne has created a city so real that one could search for it on a globe and be surprised not to find it. The city of Ruin has at its heart the Tower, an immense monument, natural and shaped by man, that houses the Sancti, an order of monks separated from the rest of mankind by their secrets. In The Tower, the last of the trilogy, the secrets are finally revealed. This has been a fantastic thriller trilogy and it’s to Simon’s credit that its end is every bit as good as one knew it would be. The only sadness is that the trilogy is now complete but no doubt there is much more to come from this fine writer.

I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
I Am Pilgrim by Terry HayesReview. I picked this book up knowing very little about it other than that it was not my usual sort of read at all – a spy thriller beginning with a gruesome crime scene – but I was assured that I should put all my preconceptions to one side and jump onboard and hang on. And they were right. From the very first to the very last page, I was utterly enthralled by this astonishing novel, a debut, no less. I Am Pilgrim is thrilling and unputdownable. It is an emotive reading experience. It is indeed genre defying. The journeys that we, the lead characters and the author/narrator are led on are populated by ‘real’ people, obsessed by their own lives, living their own experiences, influenced or merely observed by our two chief protagonists, Pilgrim and Saracen. It’s a twisty path, covering so many countries, sometimes leading to tears, admiration, horror or to tremendous shocks and revelations. 700 pages might seem long but when I finished I Am Pilgrim I was so sorry to put it down, full of admiration as I was for Terry Hayes and this extraordinary achievement. With no doubt at all, this is my top thriller of 2013.

The Blood Gospel and Innocent Blood by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell
The Blood Gospel by James Rollins and Rebecca CantrellReview of The Blood Gospel and Innocent Blood. James Rollins is one of my very favourite thriller writers. I look forward to every book he writes. This year, Rollins has joined with Rebecca Cantrell to embark on a new series, the Order of the Sanguines, a sequence of mysteries involving a supernatural order of priests living in Rome, who inhabit a world walked by monsters, demons, immortals and vampires. Joining them are two humans, Erin and Jordan, and it is because of them, not to mention the extremely high quality of the writing, that the reader can accept this strange world in which they are placed. The novels are as much about emotion as they are action and they are utterly absorbing. Fortunately, Innocent Blood, the second in the series, followed swiftly on the heels of The Blood Gospel.

The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick
The Summer Queen by Elizabeth ChadwickReview. During 2013, I have read no fewer than four novels by Elizabeth Chadwick. Her writing is extraordinary as is her power to evoke the lives of people from the past so vividly that you can almost sense them around you. In The Summer Queen, Elizabeth Chadwick turns her attention to my favourite female figure from history – Eleanor of Aquitaine – and the result is wonderful. This novel, the first in a series, follows Eleanor through her childhood and during her marriage to the saintly, albeit horrendous, French King Louis. The portraits of Eleanor, her husband and her sister are compelling and vivid, as are the locations in France and on Crusade, and as this part ends we can glimpse young Henry of Anjou standing in the wings. This is historical fiction at its best and I can’t wait for part two next summer.

Marauder by Gary Gibson
Marauder by Gary GibsonReview. Gary Gibson is fast becoming one of my favourite authors, let alone favourite science fiction authors. He has the considerable, not-to-be-underestimated talent of bringing lightness and accessibility to hard science fiction. Marauder is set within the universe of the Shoal Trilogy and yet it is also a standalone novel. In it, we have two fascinating and contrasting female figures – Megan, an experienced, assured machine head, who knows what she wants, what she has to do, and nothing can stand in her way; and Gabrielle, young, relatively innocent and used and ready to fight back. Manipulating them both, to varying degrees of success, is an array of men on both sides of a bitter struggle to keep their planet dominant. Marauder is full of wonders – the ships and worlds, the mix of human and artificial intelligence, the unknowable monster that is the Marauder and the wider context of the FTL drives and the battle for their control that has scarred the galaxy for millennia. History here is being made. The novel is also full of twists and turns, providing a welcome continuation of the original Shoal trilogy while striking free into new territory. Marauder is great science fiction but it is also an absorbing thriller, intricately plotted and wonderfully imagined.

ACID by Emma Pass
ACID by Emma PassReview. Without doubt, ACID is my favourite Young Adult novel of 2013. The reason for this is embodied in the 17-year-old heroine Jenna Strong, a young woman imprisoned for the murder of her parents, and the Orwellian world in which she has been placed by Emma Pass. The fact that ACID is set in the UK, evoking such familiar places as London, Newcastle, Manchester and Orkney among others, is a refreshing and appealing change but even more than this is the realism of what has happened to Britain. This is a truly dark and frightening place, made even more terrifying by its vivid, precise descriptions of subdued cities and their abandoned cultural centres, and the meticulous detail with which Emma Pass describes how journeys, events, procedures take place. This is a state governed by rules and laws. There is an attention to detail that is completely fitting with the tone and theme of the novel and adds to the menace of its mood. The plot is cleverly and effectively supported by extracts from newspapers, all contributing to the depth and realism of this future Britain. The story itself is a thrilling one, full of twists and turns and surprises as well as moments of the most awful horror. I was gripped by ACID from start to finish. Its ending was, for me, heightened even further by the fact that it is not the first of a trilogy or series. It is a novel on its own.

The Blood of Gods by Conn Iggulden
Emperor: The Blood of Gods by Conn IgguldenReview. The story of the aftermath of the assassination of Julius Caesar in the Theatre of Pompey in 44BC is a familiar one, possibly the most famous of all Roman tales thanks to Shakespeare and Hollywood. For Conn Iggulden, though, it represents the inevitable and natural culmination of his superb series Emperor, which has brought alive the rise to power of the god Julius and now, in The Blood of Gods, depicts his fellow Romans slipping in his blood, scrambling for position, giving way under the indomitable obsession for revenge wielded by his adopted son Octavian, the new Julius Caesar – Rome’s first emperor in everything but name. There are some fantastic set pieces here. In addition to the famous last battle, there is also a harrowing sea battle led by Agrippa. The horrifying battle sequences complement well the political machinations of Rome just as the combat exists side by side with great oratory. The manipulation of Rome’s masses is as important as prowess on the battlefield. It’s been over five years since the publication of the last Emperor novel. Now the story ends at last and there is indeed closure here. You can feel it in the few scenes with Brutus and Cassius, in the shifting of Mark Antony as he tries to find his own place of comfort and power, and in the resolution of Octavian Caesar to proclaim his adopted father a god, his assassins all slaughtered. Above all, though, The Blood of Gods is an enormously confident and accomplished novel that achieves the near impossible task of placing you, the reader, in the very heart of this most fascinating time in Roman history as a witness to the actions of its greatest men.

A brilliant novel and, as such, the perfect point at which to take a rest before part two.