Sunday 18 December 2022

Favourite reads of 2022

My reading tastes have always been varied and as one can expect my favourite reads this year have been a mixed bunch. If you listened to the Crime Time Books of the Year which I took part in then you will have an inkling of a few of the books that made my favourite reads of the year list. I also mentioned three of them on DampPebbles #R3COMM3ND2022 where she invites various book bloggers and published authors etc to nominate three must read books each year. 

In alphabetical order my favourite reads of the year are as follows -

A History of Treason: The Bloody History of Britain through the Stories of its most Notorious Traitors by Chris Day, Daniel Gosling, Neil Johnson and Euan Roger (John Blake Publishing).

A History of Treason details British history from 1352 to 1946, covering major historical moments in a fascinating and innovative way, using the history of high treason and deception as its theme. Appealing to a range of audiences, it covers more than 650 years of momentous history through the use of both famous and lesser known events which shaped Britain. Using original documents and detailed research undertaken by The National Archives' record specialists, it will cover moments in history which led to fundamental changes in eras. It will also include unique discoveries from these archives, uncovering mysteries and stories of how dealing with treason have brought about the changes which have influenced and shaped Britain throughout the centuries. Among these are: the trial and execution of Anne Boleyn on the orders of her husband, Henry VIII several major acts of sedition, including the Gunpowder Plot and the revolution plotted in the Cato Street conspiracy the evidence brought against Sir Roger Casement, executed at Pentonville and his remains later exhumed and given a state funeral in Ireland the trial and execution of the William Joyce who, as 'Lord Haw-Haw', broadcast Nazi propaganda from Berlin during the Second World War. The book covers many stories that explore the nature of treason and how the crown and state reacted to it - from the introduction of the Treason Act in 1352 right through to the twentieth century. Written by experts from among the historians at the National Archives, the book is copiously illustrated with images from the unrivalled collections of The National Archives.

Last year one of my favourite reads was Murder: The Biography by Kate Morgan. This year it is a History of Treason. Like The Life of Crime by Martin Edwards (see below) it appeals to my interest in history and anything that tangentially deals with crime. You don't have to have an interest in the Treason Act to enjoy dipping in and out of this book. It is incredibly fascinating, full of interesting historical information and starts with the 1932 Treason Act which surprisingly is still inforce. If you want to know more about such luminaries as Anne Boleyn, uy Fawkes and Lord Haw-Haw (amongst others) all of whom were accused of treason then this is the book to read. 

The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and Their Creators. by Martin Edwards. (Harper Collins Publishers)

In the first major history of crime fiction in fifty years, The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and their Creators traces the evolution of the genre from the eighteenth century to the present, offering brand-new perspective on the world's most popular form of fiction. With crime fiction being read more widely than ever around the world, and with individual authors increasingly the subject of extensive academic study, his expert distillation of more than two centuries of extraordinary books and authors from the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann to the novels of Patricia Cornwell - into one coherent history is an extraordinary feat and makes for compelling reading.

This book pandered to the nerd in me and my love of crime fiction criticism and the history of crime fiction. Anything that can be used for crime fiction research and reference is a book that will always pique my interest. It is certainly a book that can be read by anyone, but will no doubt be appreciated a lo more by lovers of the genre. Look at it as a sequel to Julian Symons seminal book Bloody Murder. It is the type of reference book that will be around for a long time and will no doubt become a classic in due course. And so it should. 

Bad Actors by Mick Herron (John Murray Press)

Intelligence has a new home. A governmental think-tank, whose remit is to curb the independence of the intelligence service, has lost one of its key members, and Claude Whelan-one-time head of MI5's Regent's Park-is tasked with tracking her down. But the trail leads straight back to the Park itself, with Diana Taverner as chief suspect. Has Diana overplayed her hand at last? What's her counterpart, Moscow's First Desk, doing in London? And does Jackson Lamb know more than he's telling? Over at Slough House, with Shirley Dander in rehab, Roddy Ho in dress rehearsal, and new recruit Ashley Khan turning up the heat, the slow horses are doing what they do best, and adding a little bit of chaos to an already unstable situation... There are bad actors everywhere, and they usually get their comeuppance before the credits roll. But politics is a dirty business, and in a world where lying, cheating and backstabbing are the norm, sometimes the good guys can find themselves outgunned.

What more can be said about Mick Herron's excellent Slough House series? Satire at its best along with him being one of the best spy thriller writers around at the moment. They are in the current light of day pitch perfect, fantastically written and I'm dying to know how he constantly manages to be spot on in writing about the situations that arise. Those in politics must dread reading each book that is published but for fans of the series Mick Herron can do no wrong. Bad Actors is a welcome addition to the series and the odious, unpleasant genius that is Jackson Lamb is a character that one can never forget or ignore. 

The Devil Takes You Home by Gabino Iglesias (Headline Publishers)

It was never just a job. Becoming a hitman was the only way Mario could cover his young daughter's medical expenses. But before long his family is left in pieces, and he's barely even put a dent in the stack of bills. Then he's presented with an offer: one last score that will either pull him out of poverty forever or put a bullet in the back of his skull. A man named Juanca needs help stealing $2 million dollars from a drug cartel. Together, they begin a journey to an underworld where unspeakable horrors happen every day. He's a man with nothing to lose, but the Devil is waiting for him.

For someone who is not horror fan this mixture of horror and crime was brilliant and not a book that I initially expected to enjoy as much a I did. Neo Noir and a fascinating story of a hitman who is trying to stay on top of things and will do anything to do so. In some ways a nightmare of a read but also a dark disturbing and a hell of a read. Brutal bloody and also full of rage and sorrow. Don't let the Spanish put you off from devouring this fascinating book as it is a gripping thriller to be sure but it is also a powerful reckoning with fait, and with the evils of this world in its many forms.  The Devil Takes You Home is a visceral, gritty, horrific but downright beautiful reading experience. 

Three Assassins by Kotaro Isaka (Vintage Publishing) Trans: Sam Malissa

Their mission is murder. His is revenge. Suzuki is just an ordinary man until his wife is murdered. When he discovers the criminal gang responsible he leaves behind his life as a maths teacher and joins them, looking for a chance to take his revenge. What he doesn't realise is that he's about to get drawn into a web of unusual professional assassins, each with their own agenda.The Whale convinces his victims to take their own lives using just his words. The Cicada is a talkative and deadly knife expert. The elusive Pusher dispatches his targets in deadly traffic accidents. Suzuki must take each of them on, in order to try to find justice and keep his innocence in a world of killers.

If you read Bullet Train then you will already have some idea of the way in which this will proceed. In this case it explores the murky and immoral world of the Japanese criminal underworld. Three Assassins is a mesmerising story about how life itself is not only cheap and precious but also the way in which the past can catch up with all of us with dreaded repercussions. Again set in the world of assassins it is replete with a sense of black humour, colourful characters that are both varied and morally despicable. This is quite a quirky book that is contrasted by the somewhat pretty stark and somewhat gritter parts of the story. There is no doubt that this is a violent book but it is a violent book with a dark sense of humour which is as dark as the subject matter the author is writing about. The warped sense of thinking throughout is one of the endearing features of his book and one of the reasons why as a reader I continued to turn the pages. Translated Japanese crime fiction just keeps on getting better and better.

The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly (Hodder & Stoughton)

The reunion will tear a family apart... Summer, 2021. Nell has come home at her family's insistence to celebrate an anniversary. Fifty years ago, her father wrote The Golden Bones. Part picture book, part treasure hunt, Sir Frank Churcher created a fairy story about Elinore, a murdered woman whose skeleton was scattered all over England. Clues and puzzles in the pages of The Golden Bones led readers to seven sites where jewels were buried - gold and precious stones, each a different part of a skeleton. One by one, the tiny golden bones were dug up until only Elinore's pelvis remained hidden. The book was a sensation. A community of treasure hunters called the Bonehunters formed, in frenzied competition, obsessed to a dangerous degree. People sold their homes to travel to England and search for Elinore. Marriages broke down as the quest consumed people. A man died. The book made Frank a rich man. Stalked by fans who could not tell fantasy from reality, his daughter, Nell, became a recluse. But now the Churchers must be reunited. The book is being reissued along with a new treasure hunt and a documentary crew are charting everything that follows. Nell is appalled, and terrified. During the filming, Frank finally reveals the whereabouts of the missing golden bone. And then all hell breaks loose.

The Skeleton Key surprised me. I am not a keen reader of psychological thrillers but quite easily made an exception in this case. A mystery within a mystery and full of an undulating tension alongside characters that are not always likeable (and why should they be?) or forgiving, The Skeleton Key draws you in from the start and makes you appreciate a well-written tale that has an inherent toxicity thread throughout the story and which also gives you a great sense of foreboding.

Confidence by Denise Mina (Vintage Publishing)

Deception. Theft. Murder. All you need is confidence. When amateur film-maker Lisa Lee vanishes from a Scottish seaside town, journalists Anna and Fin find themselves at the centre of an internet frenzy to find her. But she may not be the hapless victim everyone thinks she is. The last film she made showed her breaking into an abandoned French chateau and stumbling across a priceless Roman silver casket. The day after Lisa vanishes the casket is listed for auction in Paris, reserve price fifty million euros, with a catalogue entry that challenges the beliefs of a major world religion. On a thrilling chase across Europe to discover what happened to Lisa, Anna and Fin are caught up in a world of international art smuggling, billionaire con artists and religious zealotry. But someone doesn't want them to find the missing girl... and will do anything to stop them.

Whether she is writing a series or a standalone one of the things that stands out with Denise Mina is her great sense of place, how atmospheric her writing is and the immediacy of what she is writing about. In this case it is podcasts and blogs.  Confidence is an intricate story following a tale of intrigue and betrayal that is played out across Scotland, Italy and France against a backdrop of immense wealth, fine art, private planes and swanky hotels. There is black humour, wit and various delightful turns of phrases that fans of Denise Mina will relish.

Blue Water by Leonora Nattrass (Profile Books)

This is the secret report of Laurence Jago. Ex-clerk. Unwilling spy. Reluctant sailor. Accidental detective. New Year 1795, and Laurence Jago is aboard the Tankerville mail ship, en route to Philadelphia. Ostensibly travelling as assistant to the irrepressible journalist William Philpott, Laurence's real mission is to aid the civil servant carrying a vital treaty to Congress. A treaty that will prevent the Americans from joining with the French in the war against Britain. However, when the civil servant meets an unfortunate - and supposedly accidental - end and the treaty disappears, Laurence realises only he can now prevent war with the US. Trapped on the ship with travellers including two penniless French aristocrats, an Irish actress and a dancing bear, Laurence must hunt down both the lost treaty and the murderer, before he has a tragic 'accident' himself.

This is the second book in the series and unsurprisingly Back Drop the first book in the series (and at the time her debut novel) also made my favourite reads list. We are once again drawn to the superbly written characters, the great sense of place and atmosphere. Think Agatha Christie and Patrick O'Brien all rolled into one. Blue Water will satisfy not only those who enjoy reading about adventures but also those who love historical fiction and classic mysteries. 

Breaking Point by Olivier Norek (Quercus Publishing) Trans: Nick Caistor

When a routine kidnapping case goes badly wrong, Capitaine Vincent Coste breaks his golden rule: he starts to take things personally. And with his career hanging by a thread - his resignation letter parked in his superior's desk draw - he is plunged into his most testing ordeal yet. A raid on the vault at the Bobigny law courts. Five vital pieces of evidence swiped. Four men who can no longer be held: an armed robber, a foreign legionnaire, a kidnapper and a paedophile. But what is the connection between them? With Coste and his team at a loss, it's the moral outrage of another criminal that will throw up a lead: one they'll follow to their breaking point - and beyond.

This is the final book in the The Banlieues Trilogy and what a rush. It is a testament to how great I think this author is that The Lost and The Damned (2020) and Turf Wars (2021) the first two books in the trilogy also made my favourite reads of the year lists as well. Fans of Spiral the French Police Procedural will recognise the name as he was a script writer on the French TV series. This is more than just a police procedural. It shows the life of a police man that is not only dark and nasty but one that is forever teetering on the edge. This isn't beautiful France that you see in so many novels. It is very realistic, grimy and at times soul destroying and packs a punch. Written with very intimate knowledge of the French police system one is left with the view that this is not only one of the best police procedurals currently around but also one of the gloomiest. You read Breaking Point and take a deep breath. The audacity of what happens and the sense of betrayal leaves the reader wanting more. What next for Mr Norek? Enquiring minds wish to know.

Secret Identity by Alex Segura (Flatiron Books)

It's 1975 and the comic book industry is struggling, but Carmen Valdez doesn't care. She's an assistant at Triumph Comics, which doesn't have the creative zeal of Marvel nor the buttoned-up efficiency of DC, but it doesn't matter. Carmen is tantalizingly close to fulfilling her dream of writing a superhero book. That dream is nearly a reality when one of the Triumph writers enlists her help to create a new character, which they call "The Lethal Lynx," Triumph's first female hero. But her colleague is acting strangely and asking to keep her involvement a secret. And then he's found dead, with all of their scripts turned into the publisher without her name. Carmen is desperate to piece together what happened to him, to hang on to her piece of the Lynx, which turns out to be a runaway hit. But that's complicated by a surprise visitor from her home in Miami, a tenacious cop who is piecing everything together too quickly for Carmen, and the tangled web of secrets and resentments among the passionate eccentrics who write comics for a living.

An utter shame that this has not got a UK publisher. This is a clever reinvention of 1970s private eye fiction set in the world of comics. It is also a playful literary mystery. It is clear that the author has a love of not only noir fiction but also comics and mysteries as the love of all three shines throughout. It is not easy to create such a one of a kind novel that is on the one hand hard edged but also on the other gritty, absorbing and dangerous. If you are looking for a love letter to not only comics but also noir fiction then Secret Identity fits the bill.

The Spirit Engineer by A J West (Duckworth Books)

Belfast, 1914. Two years after the sinking of the Titanic, high society has become obsessed with spiritualism, attending séances in the hope they might reach their departed loved ones. William Jackson Crawford is a man of science and a sceptic, but one night with everyone sitting around the circle, voices come to him – seemingly from beyond the veil – placing doubt in his heart and a seed of obsession in his mind. Could the spirits truly be communicating with him or is this one of Kathleen’s parlour tricks gone too far? Based on the true story of Professor William Jackson Crawford and famed medium Kathleen Goligher, and with a cast of characters including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, The Spirit Engineer conjures a haunted, twisted tale of power, paranoia and one ultimate, inescapable truth...

I have never been of the view that you have to like the major protagonist in any book and in the case of William Crawford in The Spirit Engineer you will either love him or loathe him. Whichever side you fall down on it should not stop you from enjoying what is a cleverly told story. It is a story of the afterlife, death and how life after death is perceived by people. Not only is it dark, macabre and shows the spooky side of Edwardian gothic fiction but the reader is left not knowing what is real and what is not. Ingeniously written and a delight.

City on Fire by Don Winslow (Harper Collins Publishers)

Providence, RI, 1986.Twenty-nine-year-old Danny Ryan is a hard-working longshoreman, loving husband, loyal friend, and occasional "muscle" for the Irish crime syndicate that oversees much of the city. He yearns for something more and dreams of starting over fresh, someplace far away. But when a modern-day Helen of Troy triggers a war between rival mob factions, Danny is embroiled in a conflict he can't escape. Now it is up to him to step into the breach to protect his family, the friends who are closer to him than brothers, and the only home he's ever known.

This is in my opinion a gritty, moody immersive and humane tale of fate, free will, loyalty and betrayal. Think also of greed, lust and violent retribution. It reminds me of Mario Puzo's The Godfather and The Sopranos and whilst I was not a big fan of The Sopranos (oh no you say!) I can appreciate the connection. Incredibly well written and the family and crime themes whilst obvious it is the realism and the immediacy that draws you in. He has incorporated in the events of the novel modern reflections from the classic accounts of the Trojan War. I'm looking forward to reading the last two books in the trilogy especially since Don Winslow has already announced that he will no longer be writing. 

Honourable mentions also go to Desert Storm by Michael Connelly, The Furies by John Connolly, Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett, Shifty's Boys by Chris Offutt, A World of Curiosities by Louise Penny and A Heart Full of Headstones by Ian Rankin.

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