I first reflected on a year’s reading via the Reading Bingo scorecard for 2016 and have decided to do it again this year. Mostly because it sneakily allows me to have more than the usual 10 or 12 books in my year-end list. The books highlighted below are my favourites among the 80 books I finished reading during the year. I can’t quite shout BINGO this year, even with elastic rules, as I have 3 blank squares but given it has been a year of personal upheaval for me I’m still calling it a win 🙂
A book with more than 500 pages
I only read one book this long during the year and, frankly, it wasn’t very good, so I will highlight instead CHAMELEON PEOPLE, the 4th book in Hans Olav Lahlum’s historical series set in 1970’s Norway. At 470 pages in its English translation the book is almost enough to qualify for this square and ticks all the right boxes for me: engaging characters, interesting exploration of social and historical themes and a terrific plot which combines the best elements of golden age detective stories with modern sensibilities.
A forgotten classic
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s THE BLANK WALL was first published in 1947 and still holds up 70 years later. Its depiction of a mother’s world unravelling due to her need to protect her nearly grown children is utterly compelling. The edition I found was released by Persephone Books over a decade ago but Holding’s work is definitely less well known than her male counterparts.
The only book I read that nearly qualifies is Liane Moriarty’s BIG LITTLE LIES which became a smash hit TV series. I thought the book had some nice character development but overall it was a little disappointing…safe where it had the potential to be subversive and a little lacking in suspense. I haven’t watched the series yet.
A book published this year
24 of the books I completed reading in 2017 were first published during the year. There are several I could highlight but given its author died during the final days of the year I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the new end of the alphabet: Sue Grafton’s Y IS FOR YESTERDAY. It is not my favourite of the series, indeed I struggled with its moral messaging, but as it is to be the last instalment of a 25 book series that introduced me to my first grown up fictional heroine and kept me company for more hours than I can count I feel the need to say a fond and genuinely grateful farewell to Ms Grafton and Kinsey Millhone.
A book with a number in the title
A blank square for me this year.
A book written by someone under 30
Another blank square. I deliberately avoid delving too much into the lives of the authors I read…their work is what interests me…so unless their age is made into “a thing” I’m unlikely to know it. Taking a quick look at this year’s list though I don’t see any names that I am sure belong to the under 30 set.
A book with non human characters
Always a difficult one for me as I avoid talking animals, paranormal beings and the like but I did discover THE UNEXPECTED INHERITANCE OF INSPECTOR CHOPRA by Vaseem Khan this year. It is a deceptively light tale about an Indian policeman on the cusp of retirement who takes on a last, troublesome case at the same time as he inherits a baby elephant. The animal doesn’t talk but it is influential in the story’s resolution and the book is a delight.
Adrian McKinty’s POLICE AT THE STATION AND THEY DON’T LOOK FRIENDLY has the kind of dark, dark humour you’ll either love or hate. There’s no middle ground. It is the sixth book in a series set in Ireland during The Troubles and it depicts the chaos of life in all its glory. I loved it as did the judges for 2017’s Ned Kelly Awards.
A book by a female author
Surely the most troubling square on the bingo card. 54 of the 87 books I started reading this year were by female authors so this is almost another free square for me and I’ve chosen to highlight Shamini Flint’s A FRIGHTFULLY ENGLISH EXECUTION. Flint has become one of my very favourite authors, as evidenced by my recent love fest for her, and this book might just be her best yet as it sends her series hero to England and gives him a cold case to solve and a present-day terrorist act to prevent.
A book with a mystery
Another chance for me to highlight just about anything I’ve read so I’ll take the time to mention Sulari Gentill’s latest Rowland Sinclair mystery: A DANGEROUS LANGUAGE. Set in 1934 I summed the book up with these words in my review “There’s a marriage proposal, two broken leg accidents, an international air race and a potentially murderous politician amidst this tale of excitement, friendship, humour and being honourable even when you’re scared“. I loved it.
I’m going to be elastic with the rules here and choose two books…Holly Throsby’s GOODWOOD and Mark Brandi’s WIMMERA as they seemed like companion pieces to me. They are both by Australian writers, both depict small town, rural life exquisitely and both explore the nature of secrets and they way they can ruin lives.
A book of short stories
Another blank square for me this year. I buy quite a lot of short story collections but can never bring myself to read them in favour of something novel-length.
In some ways the hardest square to fill as I’ve left it until last and there are several books vying for the final spot but I have to go with Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s WHY DID YOU LIE? which is an unsettling tale of three seemingly unrelated threads in which the lives of ordinary people unravel alarmingly. Sigurdardottir really is a master storyteller.
A book set on a different continent
Another relatively easy square for me as I started 70 books set in 20 real countries/locations other than Australia and one book set somewhere entirely fictional. I’m choosing Finnish author Kati Hiekkapelto’s THE EXILED which I thought the best of the three books in her series so far (and I really liked the other two). It depicts her series heroine grappling with a kind of homelessness as she discovers she doesn’t fully belong in either her adopted home (Finland) or the place of her birth (a village in what is now Serbia that used to be part of Hungary). It is a story that seems like a small one at first – starting as it does with a stolen handbag – but which goes on to prove that Shakespeare knew a thing or two when talking about tangled webs and practicing to deceive.
A book of non-fiction
Embarrassingly I only read one non-fiction work during the year but Megan Norris’ LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO was very good. If very disturbing. And very, very sad. Norris describes real Australian cases in which cowardly, juvenile, narcissistic, repugnant men have killed their own children as an act of revenge against the woman who have dared to escape their violent, bullying, controlling clutches. Norris deals with the grim subject matter as sensitively as it’s possible to do and if I still feel uneasy because I don’t know what to do with all the information I gleaned that’s not the author’s fault.
The first book by a favourite author
Again being a little elastic I think that David Casarett might become a favourite author after I happened upon his first book MURDER AT THE HOUSE OF ROOSTER HAPPINESS this year. Set in Thailand and featuring an ethicist as its main character the book is ostensibly about the search for a possible husband killer but is really about much more.
A book you heard about online
Several of the books already included here would qualify for this bingo square but I’ll highlight an additional book: Bill Crider’s TOO LATE TO DIE which was recommended by Tracy who hosts one of my ‘go to’ blogs Bitter Tea and Mystery. I read the book, set in Texas, for my Reading USA Fiction challenge and really enjoyed meeting its small town sheriff and watching him untangle several crimes. I liked that it gave me a more nuanced sense of Texas than the one often depicted in the media. And if you want to start your year reading something that is at the same time sad and joyful take a look at Bill Crider’s (probably) final post on his blog last month as he prepared to enter palliative care. The comments require tissues but do show just what an impact good authors who are also decent human beings can have on the world around them.
A best selling book
I’ve read several that probably qualify but none of them really stand out for me so I’ll highlight a multiple award winner (and hopefully a best seller too) that I really do think worth recommending: Chris Brookmyre’s BLACK WIDOW. It is one of the Scottish author’s Jack Parlabane novels and focuses on a not entirely likeable but very compelling female surgeon who gets caught up in a truly twisted series of events. It is an absolutely cracking story.
A book based on a true story
Staying in Scotland I can’t go past Denise Mina’s THE LONG DROP which is a fictionalised account of some events in the life of the country’s worst serial killer, Peter Manuel. The book has stayed with me for months due to being “…a beautifully written tale of utter ugliness”.
A book from the bottom of your TBR pile
Once again I have failed to make much of a dent in my pile of long-owned books but I did read and thoroughly enjoy Karin Alvtegen’s SHAME which I’ve owned since 2009. It is a story of two women who are outsiders in different ways and I particularly like the way Alvtegen creates both characters very well. There’s no overt sentimentality or mawkishness yet no deliberate unkindnesses either. A top read indeed.
One of my book club chums and fellow book blogger Kerrie is a huge fan of Michael Robotham. With is 2017 release I am in complete agreement with Kerrie that THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS is a great read, forcing me to feel tenderness and compassion towards its two central characters who, at least initially, I thought I would hate.
A book that scares you
If pressed I would say that this is my absolute favourite read of the year. Set in the near future and taking place mostly on the oceans between Indonesia and Australia, Jock Serong’s ON THE JAVA RIDGE depicts what happens when a surfing charter encounters a boat full of refugees. It has haunted my nightmares and its ending can still bring tears to my eyes and embarrassment on behalf of my country to my heart.
A book that is more than 10 years old
I’ve not read as many eligible books in this series as I would like to have but Gianrico Carofigli’s INVOLUNTARY WITNESS was first published in Italian in 2005. It is only loosely crime fiction, even though its main character is a lawyer and it depicts the trial of a Senegalese migrant for the murder of a young boy. It’s not like an American-style legal thriller and has lots of loose ends but I thoroughly enjoyed the social commentary and the way it kept confounding my expectations.
The second book in a series
I actually read and enjoyed the second and third book in Sarah Ward’s series featuring DC Connie Childs and her colleagues during the year but the second – A DEADLY THAW – scored one extra point on my personal rating scale. One of the features of the series is that present day crimes are linked with the past in some way and here it is the present day discovery of the fresh body of a man who was thought to have been killed a decade earlier. The plot is intricate and nail-biting and the characters excellent.
I’ve found Leif G.W. Persson’s books a bit hit or miss over the years but THE DYING DETECTIVE is definitely a hit. Persson’s recurring police character has a stroke and while recovering in hospital he meets a doctor burdened with a family secret. From his sick couch Lars Martin Johansson attempts to solve the cold case while being unusually (for him) limited by his all too human frailties.
Favourite Book-Adjacent Discoveries (non bingo related)
Favourite blog post series: To be totally honest I’m not sure when I subscribed to the excellent The Invisible Event, hosted by classic crime & mystery expert JJ, but it was this year that I noticed his JJ’s series of posts entitled Adventures in Self-Publishing in which JJ critiques self-published, locked room mysteries. Sometimes so the rest of us don’t have to. The posts are always informative and sometimes spit-take inducing if I am silly enough to drink tea at the same time as reading the blog, my favourite post for the year was the most recent one. To be fair JJ doesn’t always hate the adventures.
Best Vaguely Bookish Twitter Account: @midsomerplots or the Midsomer Murders Bot is a silly, funny account that every day offers a fictitious, ridiculous plot for an episode of the well-known English TV show (based originally on Caroline Graham’s book series) in which the murder count is absurdly high. Especially good if, like me, you’re just worn down by the rest of Twitter and its reflections of our real-world woes.