Author Picks: Books of the Year 2020

We asked some of the authors who read at Virtual Noir at the Bar or have appeared on Bay Tales what their favourite books of the year were. Here are twenty responses…some short and pithy, others more detailed…but all great books and, for members of Friends of the Bay, pretty much all of the available to buy from Forum Books with your member discount if you want to treat yourself to a post-Christmas read (and that includes our pickers’ own works!)

Here’s hoping 2021 brings as many great books to read as 2020 has.

Linwood Barclay, author of Elevator Pitch

A collective: The Bernie Gunther novels by Philip Kerr — I somehow had missed these, having read only one or two over the years. But during the pandemic I found, and consumed, them all. Just wow. Could that man write. A standout for me was The Lady from Zagreb, but they’re all terrific.

Kia Abdullah, author of Truth be Told

My choice of 2020 is the heist novel Blacktop Wasteland. Author S. A. Cosby serves up an explosive mix of racial tension, small-town deprivation and destructive masculinity interspersed with blistering action scenes and cinematic car chases, perfect for the big screen. 

James Ellson, author of The Trail

My favourite book of the year was Roseanna (he first book in the classic Martin Beck detective series)  Horribly addictive, atmospheric and very tight (240 pages). And if you like it, there are nine more in the series!

Angela Clarke, author of On My Life

My favourite book this year was The Push by Claire McGowan – because: oh my God, it’s so tense!

Margaret Murphy, author of Don’t Scream

My favourite book of the year is John le Carré’s memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, which is as thrilling as his wonderful fiction! I had to stop myself from constantly reading bits out to my husband while he was focusing on his crossword, or watching TV, or – you know – trying to sleep . . . Le  Carré   pulls no punches over what went on post-WW2 between the British, US and German governments – and the lengths he went to in order to provide authentic background for his stories is really quite terrifying. He doesn’t go easy on himself, either, in recounting his fascinating tales, and he uses his own gaffs to brilliant comic effect.

Rachel Sargeant, author of The Roommates

My favourite book of the year is Can You See Her? By S.E. Lynes.

When I heard Susie read at VNatB, I knew the book was something different and special. I bought and read a copy within a week of the show. Not only is it unusual for featuring a fifty-something female protagonist, the book differs from the norm in terms of structure and tone. For a dark thriller, it ain’t half funny. But the laughs are bittersweet and eventually fall away to reveal raw emotion and tears. I chuckled, I punched the air and then I blubbed.

Allie Reynolds, author of Shiver

It’s so hard to recommend just one favourite book that I read this year. I’m going to say Erica Ferencik’s The River at Night. Four female friends take a white-water rafting trip down a remote Maine River. This thriller is such an intense read, full of twists and tension, with such a strong sense of place. I rarely reread books, but I loved this book a few years ago and I enjoyed it just as much second time round.

Robin Morgan Bentley, author of The Wreckage

My favourite book of 2020 was The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. The novel stands so confidently between thriller and literary fiction. It’s gripping and poetic, at times gentle and elsewhere deeply challenging. I loved the detailed setting descriptions and still, months after reading, the characters feel like they’re with me, on my shoulder, in my ear, as I read other books.

Catherine Cooper, author of The Chalet

I really enjoyed The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean – tense, claustrophobic and terrifying  – also I don’t think I’ve read a female character written so well by a man since Madame Bovary.

Susan Lynes, author of Can You See Her

My best crime read this year was You and Me, a psychological thriller by Nicola Rayner, which combined literary writing with a great plot, twists and turns, and heart.

Alison Belsham, author of The Embalmer

One of the best books I read this year was City of Vengeance by David Bishop. I saw his winning pitch at Bloody Scotland’s 2018 Pitch Perfect competition and had been waiting to get my hands on it since then. Set in Medici-era Florence, court investigator Aldo Cesare is given four days to solve a murder and in so doing uncovers a conspiracy that threatens to topple the city itself. It’s a fast-paced page-turner with plenty of thrills, so be sure to grab it when it comes out in February.

Nicola Martin, author of Dead Ringer

My top read of 2020 is a couple of years old…The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. The Fact of a Body is part true crime, part memoir, part meditation on the nature of writing. Most of all, it seethes with emotion. It’s deeply evocative, deeply disturbing. The little white house at the edge of the woods will stay with me for a long time.

Alison Bruce, author of I Did It For Us

For my book of the year, I am torn between two very different titles. Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee, and The Curator by MW Craven. One is a beautifully drawn murder mystery set in India, the other is a breathtaking race against time. I can’t help but suggest reading both!

Alex James Hawley, crime blogger and podcaster

Here is my nomination for book of the year, Stu Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water.  My reason why is simple, fully rounded characters, a great use of the historical period and a dose of the occult too. 

Roxie Key, book blogger and author

My book of the year is Jane Casey’s The Cutting Place. It’s the latest instalment in my favourite ever police procedural series (the one that inspired me to write crime), and it just keeps getting better and better. 

Karen Murdarasi, author of The Sarcophagus Scroll

The book I would like to recommend is The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker. It was a surprising book that threw together two different cultures, and two very different protagonists, in a way that really worked. A bit like a the BBC series Being Human, but set in circa 1900 New York.

Cath Staincliffe, author of Quiet Acts of Violence

I’m sure I won’t be alone in raving about We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker. A noir story steeped in the legacy of violence but full of humanity and soul. It moved me to tears and the unique characters are still with me months later. 

Jane Corry, author of I Made a Mistake

Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club. I was sent a proof in March and it really cheered up the first lockdown. It was quirky, funny and unexpected. A crime novel which also made me laugh. We need more ‘senior citizen’ heroes and heroines !

House Recommendations

As we’ve had the pleasure of welcoming over 250 authors to our other project, Virtual Noir at the Bar, throughout the year, we thought we’d share some of our favourites of 2020

Simon Bewick

The Master: Lawrence Block – Dead Girl Blues. One of the most shocking and visceral readings we had at VNatB, DGB was the outstanding book of the year for me. This book considered a murderer in the most thought provoking manner since Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.

The Debut: Eve Smith – The Waiting Rooms. With great research but, more importantly, fantastic writing, The Waiting Rooms was the book we might not want to have been quite so prescient this year…

The New Discovery: Zoe Sharp – Bones in the River. Zoe Sharp’s latest (and a new series for me), seemed to me to be the closest successor to Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series. It wasn’t just the Yorkshire setting. It was the deft handling of multiple plots, strong protagonist descriptions and some nice twists on the police procedural.

The One for Fans: Joe R Lansdale – Of Mice and Minestrone. As a fan of the Hap and Leonard series for more years than I care to think about, this collection of shorts revealing some of the back story and ‘missing bits’ from the duo’s history was a goldmine. If you haven’t read any of the pair’s adventures, you’ll want to start straight away.

The Ongoing Action Series: Gregg Hurwitz – Into the Fire. The latest in the Orphan X chronicles which, in my humble opinion, is the best action thriller series around. There can be a risk of action protagonists becoming ‘invincible’… but what if you’re one of the world’s best assassins and happen to have suffered a major head injury? That’s what Evan Smoak is fighting against in Into the Fire (and lots of bad guys too…) Now I’m just looking forward to the new one when the Nowhere Man is back to full strength…

Vic Watson

The Debut: If I Can’t Have You – Charlotte Levin – Levin balances real drama and dark misdeeds with a dry sense of humour, her writing fizzes on the page and I didn’t want my encounter with Constance to end. I repeatedly experienced the stings of shame as Constance tried to navigate grief, love and identity. She is the most compelling, realistic character I think I have ever read. 

The Complete Package: Three Hours – Rosamund Lupton – Elegantly written with strong imagery, Three Hours encapsulates the feelings of a range of characters, including a teenage refugee, a wounded headteacher, a mum and a young boy trying to escape a gunman. Thanks to Lupton’s insightful prose, I was utterly invested in the outcome of this novel and I’m not ashamed to say I cried several times while reading Three Hours. 

The Heartbreaker: We Begin at the End – Chris Whitaker – A magnificent read full of heart. All of the characters are written with a level of care and affection that you can’t help but get caught up in this book. The small-town setting is intricate and lends another dimension to the novel but the main draw of this book has to be Duchess, the best young narrator since Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. The love she has for her brother is enduring and will stay with me forever. 

The Audiobook: Far from the Tree – Rob Parker – This Audible Original is narrated by Warren Brown who is absolutely perfect for this fast-paced, twisty police procedural set in Warrington. Parker has captured an oft-forgotten town in between Liverpool and Manchester perfectly, using Warrington’s piggy-in-the-middle characteristics to create tension. Parker transports the audience to a new location – full of dirty deeds and complex family relationships. Parker sets up a complex family whose divided loyalties cause all manner of upsets throughout the story. Parker’s descriptions left me with vivid mental images – he has a real knack for creating atmosphere through his choice of language.

One for 2021: The Push – Ashley Audrain – A dark, compelling tale of motherhood told through four generations. Audrain’s writing is poetic and manages to convey the nuance experienced by every mother. The Push is a beautifully written story that will have you holding your breath and wondering if what you’re reading is to be believed. Totally terrifying and utterly addictive

Got a favourite of your own you’d like to share? Drop your book of the year into the comments below!

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