Looking back over my year of reading, what strikes me now is how hard it is to categorise some of the books. Many were sold as contemporary fiction but turned out to be what we might have previously defined as sci fi/ fantasy. Meanwhile the world of crime/thriller/whodunnits continues to flex its muscles and genre bend. All of which I think is really healthy. It’s good to see some defiance of the tendency of publishers and bookshops to slot authors onto narrow bookshelves.

In no particular order, then…

Crime/ whodunnit.

1. The Guest List by Lucy Foley. I saw a reviewer describe this as And Then There Were None meets Big Little Lies, and I’d go along with that. Set on a small island off the coast of contemporary Ireland, our characters meet for an exclusive celebrity wedding. Murder and mayhem ensue, secrets unfold, and the book powers towards a final surprising denouement.

2. Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz  This book has sat on my ‘to be read’ pile for a while, and is now the first of a series. I will definitely seek out the sequels. This is a book within a book; an editor receives the latest murder mystery from her acclaimed author, but missing its final chapters, and when she travels to his house to find out where they are, she discovers he is dead. A classic golden age type whodunnit within a contemporary whodunnit, it’s fast paced and gripping.

3. The Unravelling by Helen Forbes. The third novel by Helen, again set in Inverness, this time in the grounds of Craig Dunain psychiatric hospital where two bodies have just been found. A dual time line novel, it is not only a whodunnit, it’s also an exploration of mental illness and its effects on family.

This year, I also read The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, which really typifies the genre bending I was talking about, as this is a time-slip novel where the protagonist wakes up eight times, in a different body on every occasion, to re-live the same day over and over in order to work out who killed Evelyn Hardcastle. Oh yes and he’s competing with two other people; whoever solves the puzzle first will escape this purgatory. I mean it’s clever, and I can well imagine the author’s spreadsheet and post-it notes taking over his house while he tried to keep track of his own plot, but unfortunately at times I did feel like he might be looking over my shoulder saying, ‘There! Isn’t that clever? See what I did there?’ I’m not a gamer, and this is maybe why I didn’t warm to it because it does feel like you’re moving through a gaming world. But I mention it to you in passing because I did force myself to finish it, and it is clever and it works.


I seemed to have majored on thrillers this year, which makes choosing a few favourites particularly hard. I’ll do my best.

Readers of this blog will know that I’m a big Stephen King fan, and so it was fabulous to find out he was appearing in Stirling of all places, at the annual crime/thriller festival, Bloody Scotland. One of the benefits of the pandemic is that we’ve come to accept virtual events, and so here we had Stephen King appearing in front of a live audience in Scotland, which might not have happened otherwise. He was joined by Linwood Barclay, who I had not come across before, and it was an entertaining and informative event. Stephen King was raving about Linwood’s writing, so I went straight out and got his latest, and boy, was it great.

4. Find You First by Linwood Barclay. The twists and turns in this unputdownable thriller will have you gasping. A tech millionaire finds he has a terminal illness, possibly hereditary, and so he decides to track down the children born from his sperm donations twenty years ago, partly to warn them, but also to leave them his fortune. But one by one they are murdered….

5. Bag of Bones by Stephen King. On the subject of Stephen King. I did read his latest, Billy Summers, which I really enjoyed. It’s about a hitman doing one last job and being caught up in doubts and dramas. Yep it’s good, but this year’s big find was Bag of Bones published in 1998. There are many elements of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca in here (that book is referenced several times) and it has a similar atmosphere and setting. Stephen King at his best.

6. Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton. I’m a big fan of Rosamund Lupton, so I’m more than ready when a new book of hers hits the shelves, but this time she’s surpassed herself. I don’t think I’ve read a more gripping story for a long, long time. It’s a school siege in rural Somerset, which lasts for three hours, told in real time, moment by excruciating moment.

Other thrillers read this year which I’d love to include were Slow Fire Burning, the third novel by Paula Hawkins, who wrote The Girl on the Train, and of a similar gripping standard. Jane Harper is another author I look out for, and her latest, The Survivors, set on Tasmania about the aftermath of a drowning, did not disappoint. The Au Pair by Emma Rous is also worth a read.


Neither of these books were published this year, but they were new to me and I adored them both.

7. Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom. I’ve read and enjoyed all seven of CJ Sansom’s Shardlake books, set in Tudor times. This spy novel was published in the same year as the third of the Shardlake’s (how did he find the time?) Set in 1940s Spain, during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and while the rest of Europe is fighting. Britain wonders whether Franco will join in so they send protagonist Harry to Madrid to work as a spy. It is detailed, feels authentic and is totally absorbing. Elements of John Le Carré, Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene, but ultimately it’s a unique piece of work, very moving, very human.

8. Two Brothers by Ben Elton. I somehow missed this book when it came out, perhaps because it was bookended by another two First World War books by the same author –  The First Casualty and Time and Time Again. I’ve since discovered that Two Brothers is based on a elements of Elton’s own family history, so it’s perhaps not surprising that he has mined the First World War three times now. And while I loved Time and Time Again (who wouldn’t love a time travel book where our hero tries to stop the war?) I think Two Brothers is perhaps Elton’s finest novel to date. (And I’ve read all sixteen of them).

Young Adult

British YA is lagging behind the US right now, and that’s probably not helped by publishers looking across the pond for the next best thing. So maybe that’s why two of my three favourites were both set in New York.

9. The Diviners by Libba Bray. The first in a series, this is a supernatural thriller whodunnit set in New York City in the 1920s. Fair bit of genre bending going on there, to be sure, but what I particularly liked about this was the voice of the protagonist, larger than life and very sassy.

10. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Again set in New York, this one is a sci fi/ time travel/ mystery, which explores the issue of time travel and what is possible and what is not, while at the same time seeking answers to a mystery. It is not dumbed down at all, but at the same time is very accessible.

11. The Climbers by Keith Gray. A UK book, published by the amazing Barrington Stoke, who specialise in producing dyslexia friendly books for teens who don’t read. Shorter books but with gripping plots, which don’t patronise their reader. Keith Gray always writes terse, exciting books which appeal to teenage boys, and this book is no exception.

Middle Grade

Goodness it’s hard to pick the best middle grade this year! As with children’s fiction throughout the ages, there were some fabulous, exciting and novel ideas explored.

12. The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell. I’m beginning to think I’d read Katherine Rundell’s shopping lists. I wish she had been writing when I was a child. She produces wonderful adventures with feisty characters. The Good Thieves is set in 1920s New York and features a fantastic cast of vivid and memorable young characters who set out on an adventure to right wrongs, getting into danger and discovering things about themselves in the process.

13. The Wild Way Home by Sophie Kirtley. Another time travel book, where our protagonist finds himself accidentally thrown back into the Stone Age. Really atmospheric and with tremendous emotional heart.

I’d also like to mention a new series, by Robin Stevens, which begins with Murder Most Unladylike. Think Mallory Towers meets Agatha Christie; two schoolgirls in a 1930s boarding school solve murders. There are already 12 in the series; at least two a year are published, and I understand that the author deliberately pays homage to Agatha Christie with her plots, but also seeks to challenge racism and homophobia. The first book was certainly enjoyable, and I’m not aware of anything else like this existing for this age group so I can understand their popularity.

Sci fi/ Fantasy

Even if you’re not a fan of sci fi/fantasy, I think these offerings are worth considering, as the overlap with other genres is so interesting. My goodness how I enjoyed all of these.

14Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. This is defined as dystopic science fiction, and I guess it is, just like Never Let Me Go, but fans of Ishiguro will know that whatever he sets his mind to writing, it will be something stunning, and this is no exception. Klara is a robot and a nanny, designed to offer companionship/ friendship to children. The story is told entirely from her perspective, which is of course, limited, and that is what makes it so interesting. Like any being with intelligence, Klara attempts to make sense of the world and her actions and role in it, which thus sheds light on what it means to be human.

15The First Time Lauren Pailing Died by Alyson Rudd. This one is marketed as contemporary fiction, but it is a time slip book. Lauren is a teenager in the 1980s and each time she dies, the people around her subtly change. She remembers it all and mourns the loss of versions of the people she has grown to love in the previous lives. The cover is very chick lit, with no hint of dark themes such as love, loss and indeed madness. Which is interesting, as these themes are also present in The Red Pill by Hari Kunzru; but the title and cover of this book are definitely referencing sci fi and The Matrix. Although it does remain firmly in the same time line, the protogonist believes he is swept into alternative realities. You could have fun reading both to see how two authors treat similar ideas in very different ways.

16. The Heavens by Sandra Newman. A ‘time travel fantasy’ as the Guardian defines it, this novel feels very real and contemporary. Is Kate actually dreaming that she’s travelling in time or is it actually happening? It reminds me of Ursula Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven, and has a similar feel to the brilliant Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I urge you to read it. (Sandra Newman is also one of the authors of How Not To Write a Novel, one of my favourites).

General contemporary fiction

I’ve read so many brilliant books this year that I’ve cheated a bit and created some new categories – debate and classics – which allows me to include a few more in this section.

17. The Switch by Beth O’Leary. It’s nice to have a older, joyful, fun and funky protagonist. Grandmother and granddaughter swap lives in this funny tale, where grandmother moves to trendy Shoreditch and has a go at finding love through Tinder while career minded granddaughter takes her place in rural Yorkshire. It’s like The Holiday without Kate Winslet patronising the sad old people on Zimmer frames.

 18. The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. You may remember Emma Donoghue as the author of Room, that gripping story loosely based on Joseph Frizl. The Pull of the Stars is set almost entirely in a small maternity ward in Dublin during the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918, and what I now realise is that Emma Donoghue is a master of creating suspense in tiny worlds with tons and tons of mundane every day detail. It’s incredible. In Room we see this small boy whose world consists of Chair, Table, Bed, etc – capitalised to show how they necessarily fill the tiny space to become immensely important. While in The Pull of the Stars, the births, medical procedures, mealtimes, which cover several pages, create enormous tension in the mundanity in the midst of terrible uncontrollable events.

Debut fiction

19. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. The premise of this is that a well to do important influential family, living in New York, employs a black babysitter, who is challenged in their local supermarket as a possible childnapper.  This is such a brilliant and unexpected book about race and class in modern USA. Not at all predictable either, but very thought provoking

20Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. The winner of the Booker Prize, this novel about growing up poor and gay in a dying Miners’ village near Glasgow is surprisingly funny, in a warm and tender way. I thoroughly enjoyed it and didn’t want it to end. Books written in dialect can be difficult, but the balance is just right and it’s very readable. On that note, you might also really enjoy Before Now by Moira McPartlin, which is another story about growing up in poverty in ex-mining communities. This is written entirely in Fife dialect, and once again I found it easy to read, tremendously funny and poignant.

Classic, but new to me, fiction

21. Telling Liddy by Anne Fine. The second children’s laureate, Anne Fine is better known for children’s and YA fiction, but Telling Liddy is definitely women’s fiction. First published in 1998, it’s a story which is very relevant today. Four adult sisters, one of whom – Bridie – is a social worker. When sister Stella tells Bridie that Liddy’s new boyfriend could be a paedophile, the repercussions are enormous. It’s a brilliant portrayal of stiflingly close family life, and when family loyalty butts up against wider moral dilemmas.

22. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Ashamed to say I haven’t read this before. Of course the film is so wonderful, I did think maybe I don’t need to read it, but I am glad I did. There is so much more to the story when you read it, with the repressed uptight voice of the butler telling you his story.

Short stories

I’m not a great reader of short stories, but these collections this year all were worthy of inclusion in my best books’ list.

23. Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro. Bit of an Ishiguro theme going on here. Subtitled Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, each has a musical setting (note!) linking the stories together, but each is a completely separate and complete vignette, beautifully written.

24. If it Bleeds by Stephen King. I picked this up in the airport not realising it was a short story collection – well ok, it’s Stephen King, so not exactly ‘short’. Novellas in fact, and one of them – If It Bleeds is a complete Holly Gibney story (She of the Mr Mercedes’ series). I have to say though, the other three stories were seriously brilliant, especially the one about the mobile phone buried in a dead man’s pocket…


25. Motherwell by Deborah Orr. Another tale of growing up in poverty in Scotland, this is a fantastic and vivid piece of memoir, perhaps all the more poignant as she completed it just before her early death.  Even if you don’t know this area of Scotland, there will be things to recognise in this universal story of a town run into the ground by the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

There were many, many more books to enjoy this year, but I’ve kept it to twenty-five because I can’t be greedy. Which was best overall? Oh, that is so, so hard to say, therefore I’m going to give you my top three. Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton. The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue and Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. But it was a hard choice!




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