My top 10 reads of 2020

A little news…

2020 has been a terrible year for many of us due to Covid-19 wreaking havoc on the world and taking away so much of what we took for granted. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to keep on writing and working from home without too much interruption (my husband is in the house too now but he wisely keeps his distance while I’m in my office). With far less time spent hanging out in cafes and seeing people in the outside world, my year has been bleak at times but highly productive.

On Christmas eve I finished (thank goodness!!) writing, redrafting and editing my ‘debut’ crime novel – the first to focus on a police investigation. I got the first draft done in April and revised it a couple of times. Then in September I realised I needed to significantly rewrite the novel that I’d thought was finished, adding other elements that on reflection had been missing. (Thanks to the tough critics in my writing group.) In the process, I turned my gang thriller into a crime novel blended with a psychological thriller, inspired in part by TV’s Line of Duty and The Sinner.

Finally, the novel is what I wanted to write in the first place but shied away from, thinking it would be too much of a challenge. (Yeah, I should have been braver in the first place…) Finishing is an intense relief after nearly 400 pages! Whatever happens, I have a feeling that this one is going to be special.

Back to the reason for this post. Before the year ends, I want to share my favourite books out of those I managed to ‘read’ in 2020 – or listen to, in many cases, while out walking. You’ll notice a leaning towards crime and thrillers. They were mostly published in 2019 or a bit before.

My top ten books

1 Breakers by Doug Johnstone (Orenda Books, 2019)

Plot in a sentence:

A vulnerable youth and his sister who live with their pretty useless addict mother in a desolate high-rise tower on the wrong side of town are coerced into robbing the house of an underworld king – who’s not best pleased.

My take:

This is my first Doug Johstone book but I doubt it will be my last. Gritty, atmospheric and tense, this is a powerful story set in Scotland told with spare, compelling prose. I really cared about the main characters and what might happen to them.

2 The Women by SE Lynes (Bookouture, 2019)

Plot in a sentence:

With the help of two attendees on her creative writing course, a young woman with a small child starts to see the true, chilling nature of the narcissistic older man who swept her off her feet…

My take:

The Women is beautifully observed. The central character’s situation pulled me in, along with the journey she goes on (though she is not the most astute of women at the start). The theme of women standing up to male dominance and oppression resonated with me as I’m sure it has for many women. I found the ending both startling and satisfying.

3 Unquiet Souls (a DI Gus McGuire case) by Liz Mistry (Bloodhound Books, 2016)

Plot in a sentence:

An injured, traumatised detective desperate to get back to work finds himself hunting a powerful, super-secret ring of child traffickers in West Yorkshire (northern England) who are set on avenging the woman who betrayed them, years before – then starts to suspect a colleague may be involved.

I admit I had one or two difficult moments as a reader – (brief) descriptions of neglected/trafficked children and cruelty to a child – and it took me a while to get into the book’s structure (past/future strands and various points of view). But I was won over by dreadlocks-swinging DI McGuire with his mental and physical infirmities, and by halfway was eager to read on.

Unquiet Souls, despite its subject matter and references to chilling crimes, is sensitively written with plenty of gritty, realistic observations of police work and the impact of crime on victim’s lives. I especially liked the interplay and humour between the police characters and the building intrigue as to the ringmaster’s (“The Matchmaker”) identity. The ending is tense, to say the least! If you can cope with some nasty – though not at all gratuitous – moments, I’d highly recommend this first police procedural in a series involving this detective. I’m going to be checking out what Gus is up to in Liz Mistry’s next book, for sure.

4 Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce (Wildfire, 2019)

Plot in a sentence:

Criminal barrister with a serious alcohol problem who’s having issues with her husband embarks on the defence of a woman who’s accused of murdering her husband, unleashing a series of disturbing parallels between the two women…

Blood Orange is another book that I finally got around to listening to this year. An excellent portrayal of a woman pushed to the brink, struggling to cope with her family, marriage and a demanding career, and who’s hooked on grim encounters with a selfish guy (her colleague) and unable to discern the truth under her nose. In the first half I found myself getting frustrated with her for her repeated self-destructive behaviour (getting drunk and having humiliating encounters/illicit liaisons). Psychological suspense with strong shades of Apple Tree Yard, as is mentioned in the book’s blurb – clever, absorbing, memorable, dark, witty and twisty – highly recommended.

5 Hell Bay by Kate Rhodes (Simon & Schuster UK, 2018)

Plot in a sentence:

A detective (and his dog) arrives on a small island in the Scilly Isles to take a break after the death of his police partner – but after a young woman is found dead on the rocks he decides to help the useless local police and gets drawn into the tightly-knit community, one of whom is the girl’s killer…

A great sense of mood and place, well drawn characters, plenty of mystery with an edge of menace – Hell Bay has a lot going for it. The story is centred on a guilt-ridden detective who’s pulled between his role as SIO and his role as a friend and returning member of the community. He’s not resistant to the lure of a mysterious pretty woman, in between taking his independent-minded hound on windswept walks to smugglers’ haunts… As far as the ending goes, all I will say is bravo Fido 😊

6 In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne (Tinder Press, 2018)

Plot in a sentence:

Three teenage boys of diverse cultures and ethnicities living on a north London council estate are forced to choose where their loyalties lie after the riots and radicalism are unleashed by the killing of a British solider.

Though it took me a while to settle into IOMAFC due to the past/present threads and a fair few characters – both teenagers and their parents, adult immigrants living in London – it got me by the (dramatic) end! I was wowed by the sense of place and the teen voices, the author’s bold representation of their speech and use of urban slang. For example, at random –

Bruv. I knew you could spit but I never knew you could spit like that-yuno)

Despite the ugliness and the neglect of the places described, and the harsh realities of life for the characters, a love for the city and the spirit of its people shines through.

7 The Chalk Man by CJ Taylor

Plot in a sentence:

A 12-year-old boy tells the story of the events that shaped him – leading up to a mysterious murder in a smallish community. His account is intertwined with that of his adult self, decades later when faced with the reverberations of those events.

Finally, I’ve got around to reading this one! I found it beautifully written, mysterious, atmospheric, suspenseful and often chilling… I particularly enjoyed the psychological elements of The Chalk Man (fear of what lies within, fear of self-disintegration, loss of identity) and loved the vivid portrayal of Eddie as a boy and his changing friendships and family relationships.

8 Gallowstree Lane by Kate London (Corvus, 2019)

A police procedural about how the fatal stabbing of a gang-involved teenage boy leads to conflict between two rival gangs – and two rival police operations. (Gallowstree Lane is the location of the road where the stabbing happen, and a lot of other bad stuff.)

I took a while to get into this very well written but somewhat complex novel, where the investigation into the boy’s murder infringes on an undercover op about to yield results after two years. It is the third book in a series, which I didn’t realise at first. It took me a while to pick up on what was going on between the police characters. They grew on me though as I learned more about them and their interrelated lives. The joining of the narrators’ stories later created tension and drama. Ryan, the friend of the murdered teenager, has an especially strong voice. The policing and gang details felt totally authentic – as you’d expect given the author was a homicide squad detective in the Met – and the book certainly gives an insight into the realities of the modern policing of street gangs and drug crime.

9 Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben

Plot in a sentence:

A female US army officer, traumatised by an incident which led to her leaving the military, is shocked when her recently murdered husband inexplicably appears on her nanny-cam. Or something like that. Given the significant twist at the end it is quite hard to summarise the plot without giving anything away.

This was an immersive read thanks to the attention to detail, the building sense of mystery and the depth and complexity of the main character. She’s a capable, gun-toting army veteran who has become highly vulnerable due to PTSD, grief and fear/near paranoia. The ending came as an shock and made me examine all my assumptions about the character and set-up.

10 Their Last Breath by Sibel Hodge (Thomas & Mercer, 2019)

Plot in a sentence:

DI Warren Carter, who harbour his own dark secrets, is asked to join Hertfordshire anti-corruption unit’s investigation when the warrant card of an officer from the Force is found in a burned-out building containing a room with six women chained to the wall.

After a dramatic if gruesome start, this book evolves into a taut, suspenseful tale of two detectives hunting for the killers and a rogue cop. The plot also involves a reporter working on a story about illicit goings-on in a refugee camp and a trafficked woman.

Wishing everyone a hugely better 2021🔔🎶🥂🌟💙🐾🥳

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