Last year I split my best of list in two – the Shiny edition and the Blog edition. I read just as many books this year as last (127) and awarded 17 of them 9.5 or 10 stars at the time of review, but I’ve decided to have just one list this time with a baker’s dozen choices, mixing old and new titles, blog and Shiny reviews. As always, the links will take you back to the original review.
Best evocation of 1960s London
The Long Firm by Jake Arnott
This violent story-cycle about a bipolar gay gangster is primarily set in and around Soho of the 1960s and it’s pitch-perfect in its seedy detail. Five episodes from the life of Harry Stark, each told by a different narrator – from the unhappy peer Lord Thursby to the speed-addicted Jack the Hat and Ruby Ryder the tart with a heart, the picture they build up of Harry is of a complicated character.
Best YA novel
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
I nearly gave this award to Marcus Sedgwick for his masterful linked story cycle The Ghosts of Heaven, but Grasshopper Jungle with its coming of age story set in a world newly invaded by mutant six foot tall praying mantises was just so fresh and immediate. It was thought-provoking too whilst entertaining us in a horror mode that recalls Charlie Higson’s zombie novels. Fantastic stuff for mid-teens upwards.
Best Comic Thriller
Hack by Kieran Crowley
This thriller by crime journalist Crowley had me laughing all the way through with its hilarious wisecracks while a serial killer was at work in New York. From the moment a pet-columnist is mistakenly sent to a crime-scene because there’s a dog guarding the body, you know you’re in for an entertaining and suspenseful read. The funniest crime novel I’ve read since I discovered Christopher Brookmyre.
Best Book that Made Me Cry
Instrumental by James Rhodes
Several books I’ve read this year made me cry – including that disappointing doorstop and some tough lit for teens, but the book that dissolved me into a weeping heap was a memoir. Instrumental is a candid account of horrific child-abuse and its lasting effects in the injuries, shame, anger, breakdown, self-harm, OCD, addiction and more that followed. However, it may sound glib but isn’t, this book is also about the healing power of music and how Rhodes harnessed it to make a life for himself as a classical pianist. Horrific yet hopeful, it’s a tough read but an important one.
Best Technicolor Cover
Hotel Arcadia by Sunny Singh
This literary thriller grabbed me from page 1 and didn’t let go until I’d finished. It’s premise is very simple – a group of terrorists storm the Hotel Arcadia, systematically hunting down the guests and murdering them – we never find out why. We see what happens through the eyes of just two people: Abhi, one of the hotel managers and Sam, a guest who happens to be a war-photographer, both of whom escape the initial purge. Full of authentic detail and perfectly balanced between Abhi and Sam, this is a suspenseful and affecting read.
Best New to Me Crime Series
Spring Tide by Cilla and Rolf Borjlind
The husband and wife team behind Scandi-TV hits Arne Dahl etc. have diversified into crime novels featuring an odd couple of investigators – Olivia Ronning is a trainee police officer and Tom Stilton a dropped-out one, a former inspector. Combining solving a cold case alongside current ones that together expose the underbelly of Stockholm in both high and low places, this pair make a rather interesting new team. The follow-up novel Third Voice was also brilliant.
Best Book from the TBR I’ve Owned the Longest
The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury
Why this book sat for 21 years in my TBR piles, I’ll never work out, but once a new edition piqued my interest, I read it and was blown away by this tale of small-town America following the lives and loves of the fictional Grouse County, Iowa. The novel is driven by the conversations between the characters, finding its drama there rather than in action. The dialogue, coupled with deadpan observational detail draws you in totally. I now want to read everything Drury has written.
Best New Voice
Young God by Katherine Faw Morris
I have Elle to thank for this recommendation. Brutal, sparse and shocking, this coming of age novel is maybe the darkest I’ve ever read – but I loved it. Teenager Nikki’s story is told in short chapters, sort of vignettes – some only a line or two long, others stretching to a couple of pages. Drugs, underage prostitution, guns, trailer-park living. The author never attempts to make us like or judge Nikki, she just tells it like it is in a triumph of understatement.
Best Science Book
Spirals in Time by Helen Scales
Cedric Villani, the flamboyant French mathematician deserves a mention for making equations sexy in his book Birth of a Theorem, but marine biologist Scales’s volume about molluscs was delightful – combining natural history with folklore and the seashell’s place in culture – a perfect mixture to captivate the reader. She tells her stories with such enthusiasm for the subject, explaining clearly with a great sense of humour, drawing vivid pictures of these marvelous creatures in her words, making the book accessible to a wider audience.
Best Book About Books
Latest Readings by Clive James
James, bless him, is still alive despite having personally believed he’d be dead of the cancer afflicting him by now. He’s still reading furiously and luckily for us, writing about it. This book of essays about what he’s been reading is inspirational, funny, full of facts and detail about the titles and authors covered, all delivered with deadpan wit and a life’s experience – yet he hasn’t lost the joy of discovery of new books. Lovely.
Best Human Story About the Thrill of Space
The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock
Anyone who has ever been enthralled by reading or seeing the film of The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s seminal story of the USA’s quest to break the sound barrier and the early days of NASA and the space programme, will realise that beyond the technological marvels, the successes, and the failures, is a human story. These pioneering heroes had wives and families, friends and colleagues, who are left behind every flight, every launch, wondering if their man will come home. The Last Pilot is a novel about one such human story, that of a fictional family set amongst the real life test pilots and astronauts, and their story blends seamlessly into that of history. A magnificent debut, and so close to being my book of the year.
BOOK OF THE YEAR
Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller
When I reviewed this back in March (Shiny review here, companion blog piece here), I said this was the best thing I’d read so far this year. It remained my favourite book all year and chose itself as my book of the year. Fuller’s novel has a dual timeline alternating between her protagonist Peggy being seventeen living with her mother and nine, when her father took her to live in the woods, saying that her mother was dead. It is as dark as any of Grimms’ fairy tales and the suspense of some of the cliffhangers throughout is nearly unbearable. There is lightness too and the whole resonates with the tinkling of bells with Liszt’s La Campanella running through the narrative. An amazingly debut novel – I can’t wait for Claire’s next one.
The paperback is published today as it happens, and I urge you to go and buy a copy if you’ve not read it already,