So which books will have Santa hooked this Christmas? Our critics select the pick of this year’s novels
- Literary critics rounded up a selection of their favourite novels from the year
- Geoffrey Wansell’s crime & thrillers picks includes The Searcher by Tana French
- Other critics picked the best historical, contemporary, debut and sci-fi novels
WHO THEY WAS by Gabriel Krauze (Fourth Estate £14.99)
WHO THEY WAS
by Gabriel Krauze (Fourth Estate £14.99)
I’ve had more conversations about this novel than any other this year. Drawn on the author’s troubling past as a university student running with London gangs, it’s thrillingly visceral and endlessly rich. Longlisted for this year’s Booker, it should have been shortlisted.
by Sue Miller (Bloomsbury £16.99)
This U.S. writer isn’t as well known here as she should be — if you like Anne Tyler or Elizabeth Strout, check out this wise, witty page-turner about the wife of a secretly philandering bookseller who suddenly drops dead after ditching his latest mistress.
by Ian Williams (Dialogue Books £16.99)
I had a ball with this extremely funny Canadian debut about the decades-long fallout from an ill-advised hook-up between a young Caribbean student and an older white businessman, each grieving the loss of a parent. Pure pleasure, line after pitch-perfect line.
by Callan Wink (Granta £14.99)
This outdoorsy coming-of-age debut, written by a fly fishing guide from Montana, has been on my mind ever since I devoured it this summer. Beautifully understated, it charts the growing pains of a farmer’s son in post-9/11 America.
by Douglas Stuart (Picador £14.99)
A worthy Booker prize winner, this 1980s, Glasgow-set novel belongs not to the titular character, but his mother: the porcelain-dentured, mink coat-wearing alcoholic Agnes. Be warned, her rollercoaster addiction makes for harrowing reading. But she’s a toweringly magnificent creation.
THE FIRST WOMAN by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Oneworld £16.99)
THE FIRST WOMAN
by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Oneworld £16.99)
Kirabo, the heroine of this rangy, Ugandan-set novel, was the character I most enjoyed spending time with this year. We first meet her aged 12 in 1975, desperate to find her absent mother — who has her own dramatic tale. Makumbi braids Ugandan feminism, history and folklore into an utterly absorbing story.
WHAT’S LEFT OF ME IS YOURS
by Stephanie Scott (W&N £14.99)
This ticks every Christmas must-read box: totally transporting, with oodles of haunting atmosphere and an original, page-turning plot. Set in Japan, it’s the story of trainee lawyer Sumiko and her quest to understand the murder of her mother; it’s also a riveting insight into the world of Japanese professional marriage ‘breaker-uppers’.
DJINN PATROL ON THE PURPLE LINE
by Deepa Anappara (Chatto £14.99)
When children start to go missing from an Indian shanty town, nine-year-old Jai and his pals turn amateur sleuths. But what begins as a game turns deadly serious. Former journalist Anappara brings her setting’s smog-choked lanes and teeming bazaar brilliantly to life in a terrific debut.
A THEATRE FOR DREAMERS by Polly Samson (Bloomsbury £14.99)
A THEATRE FOR DREAMERS
by Polly Samson (Bloomsbury £14.99)
Samson’s sun-saturated novel set on the Greek island of Hydra might be just the escapism you need right now. Leonard Cohen, his lover Marianne Ihlen and a bunch of other boozy creatives lived on Hydra in the 1960s and Samson captures the darkness, emerging fractures and the beauty of their lives in a sharply feminist novel.
by Roddy Doyle (Cape £18.99)
Two men, old school friends, meet for a drink or seven one night in a Dublin pub, and talk. Love, regret, fatherhood, friendship, mortality: it’s all covered in a tangled and mesmeric novel that consists entirely of conversation which is all about the things that don’t need to be spoken and the things that can’t be said.
THE LYING LIFE OF ADULTS
by Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions £20)
Ferrante once again gets under the skin of a 12-year-old girl on the cusp of adulthood in 1990s Naples. Little in her family is what it seems, while Naples is a city teeming with seemingly irresolvable contradictions. This doesn’t have the finesse of the My Brilliant Friend quartet but few probe the seething mess of female adolescence so forensically as Ferrante.
SISTERS by Daisy Johnson (Cape £14.99)
by Daisy Johnson (Cape £14.99)
Two sisters, almost unnaturally close, are holed up with their mother in a dilapidated Suffolk coastal cottage. Something awful happened at school and their mother has taken to her bed, so the girls become feral. Told from the perspective of the younger sister, this is a haunting, emotionally acute novel with a terrific twist.
by Dolly Alderton (Fig Tree £14.99)
Work is going well for food writer Nina Dean but her love life is non-existent. She signs up to a dating app with no expectations but meets marvellous Max on date one and it’s not long before they’re a couple. When he disappears she can’t fathom what’s happened. Brilliant.
ONE YEAR OF UGLY by Caroline Mackenzie (Borough Press £12.99)
ONE YEAR OF UGLY
by Caroline Mackenzie (Borough Press £12.99)
This dark comedy stars the Palacio family who fled the socialist regime in Venezuela for a happier existence in Trinidad.
When a beloved aunt dies it transpires she was in debt to a crime master called Ugly. Chaos ensues when he forces the family to work for him. Fabulous.
by Mark Watson (HarperCollins £14.99)
Sacked by his best friend, dumped by his girlfriend, estranged from his sister and grieving his dad, protagonist James is heading to Edinburgh on the sleeper train. So unhappy he doesn’t want to live any more, he sends a text to all his contacts saying goodbye. A compelling emotional rollercoaster.
by Jane Fallon (Penguin £8.99)
After Laura’s marriage breaks down she rents an annexe from an extraordinarily wealthy couple who live in an exclusive gated community. All that glitters is not gold and Laura is soon ostracised by the queen bee of this glitzy gang. They eventually form an unlikely alliance. Fascinating.
BIG GIRL, SMALL TOWN by Michelle Gallen (John Murray £14.99)
KEEPING MUM by James Gould-Bourn (Trapeze £14.99)
THE MARGOT AFFAIR by Sanaë Lemoine (Sceptre £16.99)
BIG GIRL, SMALL TOWN
by Michelle Gallen (John Murray £14.99)
Majella O’Neill is autistic, has bags of attitude and works in the Aghybogey chippie in Ireland. Being in her company is nothing less than a treat as she details her world in her distinctive voice — hilarious, mundane and touching in turns.
THE DISCOMFORT OF EVENING
by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (Faber £12.99)
Winner of the 2020 Booker International Prize, this is a powerful and disturbing novel about a Dutch farming family overtaken by grief after the death of the oldest son. Told by ten-year-old Jas, we watch the family unravel as each struggles to cope.
by James Gould-Bourn (Trapeze £14.99)
I couldn’t resist this delightful feel-good novel about a man trying to reconnect with his young son who hasn’t spoken since his mother’s death. A bear costume provides an unexpected answer but of course nothing’s that straightforward . . .
THE MARGOT AFFAIR
by Sanaë Lemoine (Sceptre £16.99)
Margot is the secret 17-year-old daughter of a married politician and his actress mistress. Her decision to reveal her father’s true identity to a journalist has serious repercussions. With well-realised characters and beautifully descriptive, this is an astute and gripping portrayal of complex family relationships.
THE MIRROR & THE LIGHT
by Hilary Mantel (4th Estate £25)
The final instalment of Mantel’s life of charismatic Thomas Cromwell is magnificent. Packed to the gills with intrigue, plot and counterplot, this richly detailed, epic sweep of a novel tells the story of Cromwell’s downfall at the hands of capricious King Henry VIII, who rules over a country that is sullen with suspicion and secrets. A masterpiece.
by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press £20)
Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, this outstanding study of love and loss explores the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet from the perspective of his wife, Agnes. Gifted with second sight, adept at herbal cures, but unable to save her son, Hamnet’s death unmoors her from everything she knows and loves in this lyrical study of grief.
MISS BENSON’S BEETLE
by Rachel Joyce (Doubleday £16.99)
It’s England, 1950, and prim teacher Margery Benson is on a mission to discover a mysterious golden beetle in faraway New Caledonia. Accompanied by the irrepressible Enid Pretty, they embark on a grand adventure, which is as much about second chances and emotional courage as it is about trekking through dangerous terrain.
by Anne Enright (Cape £16.99)
Katherine O’Dell is the starry heart of Enright’s elegant novel. It follows Katherine’s career trajectory, from her youthful heyday in Hollywood to depression in Dublin, as seen through the eyes of her daughter. It brilliantly explores the corrosive nature of celebrity, while taking a candid look at the complexities of maternal affection.
FINDERS, KEEPERS by Sabine Durrant (Hodder, £14.99)
by Sabine Durrant (Hodder, £14.99)
A Smart, young woman and her family take pity on the lonely lady next door with explosive ramifications. Neighbourly relationships quietly descend into a toxic psychological battle that only one of them will win. Perfect domestic noir.
by Lisa Jewell (Century £14.99)
This is a brilliant mash-up of contemporary themes from the dangers of therapy to the rise of organised groups of incels — men who have serious problems relating to women. Seventeen-year-old Saffyre is the focal point of a tale packed with psychological insight and menace.
DEAD TO HER
by Sarah Pinborough (HarperCollins £12.99)
Glamour, money, powerful men and two beautiful trophy wives, one black and young, one white and older, are hiding big secrets that could destroy themselves or each other. Set in the American Deep South, this book has Netflix series written all over it.
THE OTHER PASSENGER
by Louise Candlish (S&S, £14.99)
The relationship of two ambitious young couples with wobbly moral boundaries is challenged when one of the men suddenly goes missing. Candlish expertly explores the underlying tensions and jealousies that often motivate these friendships. Nobody writes so incisively about couples.
THE TROUBLE WITH PEACE by Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz £20)
SCI FI AND FANTASY
THE TROUBLE WITH PEACE
by Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz £20)
In Part 2 of this grippingly brutal series, the dandyish King Orso is both finding his feet and losing his grip while rivals do their darnedest to bring him down. Fabulously written, nail-bitingly plotted, it lays bare the best and worst of human nature.
THE UNSPOKEN NAME
by A. K. Larkwood (Tor £16.99)
Just a perfect fantasy debut, crammed with everything we love: cruel gods, icy priest-cults, trans-dimensional warship chases and a gorgeous priestess assassin, complete with tusks and a spot of dysmorphia. Suffice to say, Csorwe battles through and wins the day, and we’re with her all the way.
THE SUNKEN LAND BEGINS TO RISE
by M. John Harrison (Gollancz £20)
Dreamy and sharp, murky and clear, this is a psycho-geographic, paranoid tour de force.
Its quiet hero is beset by emotional, watery mysteries, while sensing the emergence of new semi-aquatic Britain, just lurking beneath the surface of the familiar world.
THE BOOK OF KOLI by M.R. Carey (Orbit £6.99)
THE BOOK OF KOLI
by M.R. Carey (Orbit £6.99)
A voyage of survival and self-discovery in a post-apocalyptic Britain. Exiled from his village with a bit of chatty, hi-tech hardware, Koli has to battle inner demons, giant rats and very bad people.
Funny and frightening, you’ll cheer Koli on all the way.
by Agatha Christie (HarperCollins £14.99)
The hardest challenge in crime fiction is to produce a convincing short story. Agatha Christie had the talent in abundance.
With tight plotting and sharply defined characters, she never fails. This collection of fireside mysteries comes in a handsome presentation edition.
Edited by Martin Edwards (HarperCollins £25)
If you have wondered how a crime novel comes to be written, or thought of writing one yourself, this is where you start.
Tapping into the experience of past and present members of the Detection Club, Martin Edwards has put together an instructive and entertaining collection of essays.
A DEATH AT THE HOTEL MONDRIAN
by Anja de Jager (Constable £8.99)
After a chance meeting with a troubled stranger, Lotte Meerman of the Amsterdam police reopens a 30-year-old murder case.
Finding the truth proves easier than facing up to it for both Lotte and the families involved. This is the best police procedural of the year.
THE SEARCHER by Tana French (Viking £14.99)
CRIME & THRILLERS
by Tana French (Viking £14.99)
A Burnt-out former Chicago cop in his late 40s retreats to an isolated house in southern Ireland to try to restore himself, only to be drawn into the hunt for a missing young man by his mysterious younger brother. Beautifully told and deeply moving.
by John Banville (Faber £14.99)
A former Booker Prize-winner underlines his impressive ability as a crime writer with this dark tale of a murder in County Wexford. A Catholic priest is killed and castrated to the horror of the community, and a DI from Dublin is sent to investigate. Exquisite.
BOX 88 by Charles Cumming (HarperCollins £14.99)
THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB
by Richard Osman (Viking £14.99)
TV presenter Osman reveals himself as a crime fiction star with this story of four elderly residents of a retirement village who like to solve cold cases of murder — then get two fresh ones on their doorstep. Elegant and witty, it is delightful.
WRITTEN IN BLOOD by Chris Carter (S&S £16.99)
by Charles Cumming (HarperCollins £14.99)
The talented Cumming comes up with a spy for the 21st century in Lachlan Kite, recruited to the shadowy intelligence agency, Box 88, straight from boarding school. But Kite is no George Smiley; he’s in the thick of the action with a hint of Bond.
WRITTEN IN BLOOD
by Chris Carter (S&S £16.99)
LA-based pickpocket Angela Wood steals the bag of a man sitting by her in a bar only to discover in it a diary detailing a string of murders. The serial killer wants his list back, while a detective attempts to save her. Superb.
AN INCONVENIENT WOMAN
by Stephanie Buelens (Quercus £12.99)
One of the thrillers of the year, this story of a divorced woman who discovers that her ex-husband is about to marry again, to a woman with a teenage daughter — when her own daughter drowned after confessing her father had abused her — never loses its grip.
THE DEVIL AND THE DARK WATER by Stuart Turton (Raven £16.99)
THE DEVIL AND THE DARK WATER
by Stuart Turton (Raven £16.99)
Stunning historical fantasy set at sea in the 17th century. Evil stalks the decks of a Dutch East Indiaman, leaving gory death and a sinister symbol behind it.
Unlikely detectives Arent and Sammy join forces with aristocratic Sara to tackle the mystery. Holmes and Watson meets Treasure Island.
THE BOY IN THE FIELD
by Margot Livesey (Sceptre £17.99)
In this superb family drama, a badly injured teenager is found in a field by three siblings. They start their own investigation into who, how and why, but it leads them to unsuspected places, including their own lives. Best and cleverest character is Lilly the family dog.
V FOR VICTORY by Lissa Evans (Doubleday £14.99)
V FOR VICTORY
by Lissa Evans (Doubleday £14.99)
It’s all boarding houses and bomb shelters in this brilliant comedy drama. Vee and Noel (a kind of 1940s Adrian Mole) are posing as aunt and nephew, but who are they really?
Packed with wonderful characters and so full of wartime atmosphere you can practically hear the sirens.
JEEVES AND THE LEAP OF FAITH
by Ben Schott (Hutchinson £13.99)
This cracking homage to P.G. Wodehouse is set in 1930s Cambridge and abounds with varsity high spirits.
Bertie and Jeeves face the dark forces of the Oswald Mosley-esque ‘Blackshorts’ and need all their spiff to overcome them. Aunts, drones and fiancées all figure.
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