When I chose my favourite books of 2018, I wrote separate posts for crime and literary fiction. I’m combining them this year, partly because I want to mention a few books that straddle both categories (for convenience I’ve grouped them under ‘literary thrillers’). I also feel that there haven’t been as many great new releases this year — but that just makes my picks all the more precious! Links take you to my reviews, here or at Crime Fiction Lover.
I’m a big fan of crime series, but I had a bad year for some of my favourite series authors. For me, The Long Call by Ann Cleeves and Val McDermid’s How the Dead Speak both felt a little underdone. Stuart MacBride’s All That’s Dead and Mick Herron’s Joe Country were both enjoyable, but didn’t quite meet the heady heights of the other novels in their series.
One that did live up to expectations was the latest Damien Seeker novel, The Bear Pit by SG Maclean, which was as twisty and clever as ever, the story of a spymaster for Cromwell. This one takes in gambling, bear baiting, royalist would-be assassins and even (in a big bonus for me) horticulture, with some scenes set in Tradescant’s botanical garden.
Attica Locke’s Heaven My Home has a great sense of place and offers a timely insight into race in Trump’s America, although I don’t feel the story has the flow of some of her other novels. Joseph Knox was on form again with The Sleepwalker, the latest in his nightmarishly dark Manchester noir series featuring Aidan Waits.
For me, this year the standalones were the standouts. The first is the hilarious menopause-fuelled revenge thriller Worst Case Scenario by Helen Fitzgerald. Denise Mina’s Conviction takes the reader on a journey across Europe in a caper which asks big questions about fame, notoriety and friends who drive you mad.
The marketing team for Chris Brookmyre’s recent novels seem determined to portray them as cookie-cutter domestic thrillers but don’t be put off. Fallen Angel does have a missing child and an affluent yet dysfunctional family. However it is a fiendishly complex story tackling power in relationships, conspiracy theories and the way public perception intrudes on private grief.
Hanna Jameson’s The Last is a post-apocalyptic murder mystery set in a hotel. The crime element is the least interesting part, but I thought was fascinated by idea of people living out the end of the world among strangers in an environment which is both intimate and impersonal.
Kill [redacted] by Anthony Good is darkly comic tale of one man’s obsession with vengeance after his wife is involved in a terrorist incident. His anger is directed not at terrorists, but at the politicians who enable them.
While I thought Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky was enjoyable enough, I didn’t love it in the way I have the other Jackson Brodie novels. The plot and the seaside setting were interesting, but Jackson seemed to spend more time ruminating on his backstory than investigating.
I was also disappointed in Robert Harris’ The Second Sleep. I’m a big fan of his intelligent thrillers, often with historical or political themes. This one has a great premise but the story felt a bit plodding.
The Crossed-Out Notebook by Argentine director Nicolás Giacobone, translated by Megan McDowell, is about a screenwriter trapped in a basement and forced to write by and for a megalomaniac film director. With echoes of Stephen King’s Misery, it’s a brilliant exploration of creativity and the relationship between writer and audience.
The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan is another book featuring a man in a basement, a dark melodrama about an 18th-century labourer who agrees to stay alone underground for seven years as part of an ‘experiment’ conducted by a landowner eager for recognition for his learning.
The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker is a literary take on the pandemic thriller, about the people of a town struck by a mysterious virus which means they can’t wake up. It’s a quietly fascinating book about the significance of sleep, dreams and creativity.
Unfortunately, for me, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood felt too weighed down by exposition and the prose lacked her usual sparkle. I didn’t finish it, preferring to hold on to my memories of The Handmaid’s Tale. However, I did love Elizabeth Strout’s sequel to Olive Kitteridge, Olive, Again. Like the first book, it uses the form of linked stories to tell the story of a formidable woman as she confronts the challenges of later life, at turns poignant, funny and brutal.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is an examination of the effects of a racist criminal justice system on a black middle-class couple, which also considers the role of their personalities in what unfolds. A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman is an extraordinary novel about truth and power in families, communities and nations, seen through the eyes of an Afghan-American anthropologist who follows an apparently inspirational aid worker to a remote Afghan village.
These are my hits and misses, what stood out for you this year?