It’s that time of year again. The season when a new variant of covid rears its protein-spiked head and Christmas is cancelled (unless you’re a member of the UK government inner circle). Time for me to tell you about a few of the most memorable books I've read this year and which you should also read if you want us to remain friends.
Not all of these are books which came out in 2021. Some are older, and one doesn’t come out till next year. But as with most things, external realities such as publication dates have little bearing on me; the whole world only exists within my consciousness and what matters is when something comes to my attention.
So without further ado…
Favourite Crime Read of the Year:
Exit by Belinda Bauer
Meet Felix Pink. The most unlikely murderer you'll ever have the good fortune to spend time with.
When Felix lets himself in to Number 3 Black Lane, he's there to perform an act of charity: to keep a dying man company as he takes his final breath . . .
But just fifteen minutes later Felix is on the run from the police - after making the biggest mistake of his life.
Now his world is turned upside down as he must find out if he's really to blame, or if something much more sinister is at play. All while staying one shaky step ahead of the law.
What I say:
Exit is the story of a bunch of people – the Exiteers – who assist terminally ill people with their wish to pass on to the other side. Unfortunately for Felix Pink, a British pensioner who has recently lost his wife, he ends up ‘assisting’ the wrong person and is technically a murderer. Exit charts the dilemma of a good, quintessentially middle-class Englishman who has unwittingly committed a murder.
This is the most wonderful book I’ve read this year. Belinda Bauer has a way of capturing the small details of ordinary human existence in a way few writers can – with warmth, insight and humour. I wish I could write a fraction as well as this.
The Book I Wish I’d Written
Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby
Ike Randolph left jail fifteen years ago, with not so much as a speeding ticket since.
But a Black man with cops at the door knows to be afraid.
Ike is devastated to learn his son Isiah has been murdered, along with Isiah's white husband, Derek. Though he never fully accepted his son, Ike is broken by his death.
Derek's father Buddy Lee was as ashamed of Derek being gay as Derek was of his father's criminal past. But Buddy Lee - with seedy contacts deep in the underworld - needs to know who killed his only child.
Desperate to do better by them in death than they did in life, two hardened ex-cons must confront their own prejudices about their sons - and each other - as they rain down vengeance upon those who hurt their boys.
What I say:
It’s no secret that I, along with others on this blog, am a great fan of S.A. Cosby’s work. His debut, Blacktop Wasteland was one of picks of last year, and this book is even better. It’s not just the breakneck pace of the plot; it’s not just the beauty of the language; for me, it’s the immediacy of the subject matter, tackled from a viewpoint we’re not used to seeing, which is most refreshing. No offence to anybody, but American and British crime fiction is all but monopolised by white, middle-class voices. What we need is a diversity of stories told from many different points of view. This book, and Cosby’s work in general, shows just how rich such an experience can be,
Most annoyingly good novel from an annoyingly brilliant author
I Know What I Saw by Imran Mahmood
I saw it. He smothered her, pressing his hands on her face. The police don't believe me, they say it's impossible – but I know what I saw.
Xander Shute - once a wealthy banker, now living on the streets - shelters for the night in an empty Mayfair flat. When he hears the occupants returning home, he scrambles to hide. Trapped in his hiding place, he hears the couple argue, and he soon finds himself witnessing a vicious murder.
But who was the dead woman, who the police later tell him can't have been there? And why is the man Xander saw her with evading justice?
As Xander searches for answers, his memory of the crime comes under scrutiny, forcing him to confront his long-buried past and the stories he's told about himself.
How much he is willing to risk to understand the brutal truth?
What I say:
Barrister Imran Mahmood is a good friend of mine, so you can imagine how upset I was when I read this, his second novel, and realised just how brilliant it was. Imran is one of those authors who combines literary talent with cracking story-lines and serious messages. This is one of those books that makes you think as well as grips you from start to finish.
In my opinion he’s up there with the best of them such as the wonderful Denise Mina. He also claims to be better looking than me – which alas, is also true.
Strangest Find From Left Field
Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov
An unsuccessful writer and an inveterate alcoholic, Boris Alikhanov is running out of money and has recently divorced from his wife Tatyana, who intends to emigrate to the West with their daughter Masha. The prospect of a summer job as a tourist guide at the Pushkin Hills preserve offers him hope of bringing back some balance into his existence, but during his stay in the rural estate of Mikhaylovskoye, Alikhanov's life continues to unravel.
What I say:
Sergei Dovlatov was a Russin journalist and writer who, because of his views, found it impossible to be published in the Soviet Union of the 1970s. Today and posthumously, he’s one of the most popular writers in Russia. I’d never heard of him till a few months ago when I watched a Netflix film about him, called simply, Dovlatov. There’s a great piece on him in the New Yorker here: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/a-russian-writers-lessons-for-being-a-nobody-while-being-yourself
Schadenfreude Feel Good non-fiction of the Year
Landslide – the Final Days of the Trump Presidency by Michael Wolff
'We won. Won in a landslide. This was a landslide.'
President Donald J. Trump, 6 January 2021
Politics has given us some shocking and confounding moments but none have come close to the careening final days of Donald Trump's presidency: the surreal stage management of his re-election campaign, his audacious election challenge, the harrowing mayhem of the storming of the Capitol and the buffoonery of the second impeachment trial. But what was really going on in the inner sanctum of the White House during these calamitous events? What did the president and his dwindling cadre of loyalists actually believe? And what were they planning?
In this extraordinary telling of a unique moment in history, Wolff gives us front row seats as Trump's circle of plotters whittles down to the most enabling and the least qualified - and the president overreaches the bounds of democracy, entertaining the idea of martial law and balking at calling off the insurrectionist mob that threatens the hallowed seat of democracy itself.
What I say:
What a ride the Trump years were, eh? Remember the panic when he won, and that sinking feeling that world was going to hell in a handcart? Remember how it never got any better? Remember the arrogance and the incompetence, the racism and the flirting with the far right? Remember the Covid debacle? Remember the storming of the Capitol? It’s over, at least for now, and this book charts the ending. It’s here because I read the previous two in the series and it's nice to have a happy ending (hopefully).
Genius idea from Genius Writer
The City and the City by China Miéville
When the body of a murdered woman is found in the extraordinary, decaying city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks like a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he probes, the evidence begins to point to conspiracies far stranger, and more deadly, than anything he could have imagined. Soon his work puts him and those he cares for in danger. Borlú must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other.
What I say:
There are certain books which are works of art. The City and the City is the tale of a murder in a city that is two places at once. The cities of Beszel and Ul Quoma occupy the same space at the same time, sometimes even different sides of the same street. The residents of each are taught from childhood to ‘unsee’ the other side. Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Beszel police has to investigate the death of an American woman who was based in Ul Quoma but whose body is found in Beszel. It’s a story of politics and corruption but also an allegory for the way we unsee others, such as the homeless, on our own streets.
Sci-Fi pick of the Year
When The Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson
In the future, AI are everywhere - over half the human race lives online. But in
the Caspian Republic, the last true human beings have made their stand; and now
the repressive, one-party state is locked in perpetual cold war with the
Security Agent Nikolai South is given a seemingly mundane task; escorting a dead
journalist’s widow while she visits the Caspian Republic to identify her
husband’s remains. But Paulo Xirau was AI; and as Nikolai and Lily delve
deeper into the circumstances surrounding Paulo’s death, South must choose
between his loyalty to his country and his conscience.
What I say:
Still reading this one, but what’s fascinating is the blend of retro politics and futuristic technological change. I’m loving it.
The One for Next Year (which I got an early copy of)
The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola
In the midst of an icy winter, as birds fall frozen from the sky, chambermaid Madeleine Chastel arrives at the home of the city's celebrated clockmaker and his clever, unworldly daughter.
Madeleine is hiding a dark past, and a dangerous purpose: to discover the truth of the clockmaker's experiments and record his every move, in exchange for her own chance of freedom.
For as children quietly vanish from the Parisian streets, rumours are swirling that the clockmaker's intricate mechanical creations, bejewelled birds and silver spiders, are more than they seem.
And soon Madeleine fears that she has stumbled upon an even greater conspiracy. One which might reach to the very heart of Versailles...
A intoxicating story of obsession, illusion and the price of freedom.
What I say:
For a book to impress me these days requires a combination of fantastic plot, interesting subject matter and beautiful prose. I have to admit, I didn’t expect to like this book. Gothic Fiction set in 18th century France isn’t generally my cup of tea, but Mazzola’s writing, her wry humour and the intricacies of history and plot just came together and kept me reading in a way few books have. The last book I can remember which similarly impressed me was An Equal Music by Vikram Seth, a book set in the world of orchestral music and musicians, which has become one of my favourite books of all time. A Clockwork Girl might end up in that list too.
Mazzola, I should point out, has won an MWA Edgar, so you know she’s damn good at what she does. To be honest, I’m a bit jealous of her talent.
There you go then. Some fantastic books to get your teeth into. Read them all and read them quickly, cos I’ll be asking questions in January.
Merry Christmas, Happy holidays and a safe, peaceful and prosperous new year to you all.