It’s Christmas Eve, when people write about the books they’ve read, before stepping away from social media and the internet to return to more traditional pursuits, like acrimonious family gatherings and eating and drinking too much. I’ve never really been one for the first of those though I’ll participate with enthusiasm in the others, but, for what it’s worth, here are some book recommendations from me. I confess to a bias towards crime and mysteries and to not reading as much as I should and would like to. Warning – not all of these were published in 2021.
First, Hag-Seed by Margaret Attwood, one of the Hogarth Shakespeare series of retellings of Shakespeare plays and published back in 2016. I’d been keeping it in Spain to read there but, given that I’ve always been writing when in Spain I’d never got around to reading it. I have now and I’m very glad I did. Set in a Canadian Correctional Facility this is both utterly different to The Tempest and absolutely true to it. It manages to be a recreation as well as a commentary on the play via the means of a ‘play within a play’ something very Shakespearean in itself. It is criminally easy to read ( within a 24 hour period for me) and is also funny! An absolute must read.
Second, a discovery, of the Laidlaw books by William McIlvanney (Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch and Strange Loyalties). Written in the 1970s and 80s and recognised as the precursor to that wave of amazing Scottish crime-writing talent which followed – think Ian Rankin, Val Macdermid, Denise Mina and many others – these show a many-sided Glasgow, from aspiring suburbs to crumbling tenements through the eyes of Jack Laidlaw, philosopher cop and almost as hard as nails. McIlvanney is a true heir of Raymond Chandler, the prose jumps out at you and slaps you round the face, before sliding slowly away, drawing you ever further in after it.
Third, The Manningtree Witches (2021) a book I recommended in a recent ‘Books for Christmas’ article for Time & Leisure magazine). This is the debut novel of poet A.K. Blakemore, already winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize. The language is exquisite and earthy and follows the fate of the women at the centre of the first village witch trials during the English Civil War in 1645. Focusing on Rebecca West, daughter of the fearsome and belligerent Beldam West and the arrival of young Matthew Hopkins, the man who will become the Witchfinder General, we are treated to a rich portrayal of the fault lines exposed in a rural village during a period of famine and war.
Fourth, historical crime – though I’m not sure Stuart Turton is that bothered about historical accuracy when it intrudes upon the story. More power to his elbow, The Devil and the Dark Water (2020) delivers a shipload of entertainment. Set in the seventeenth century, on a Dutch East Indiaman, it’s a study in how fear can be used to exact revenge and is completely gripping (the denouement is as twisty and as convoluted as anything in Agatha Christie ).
Finally, a small collection of excellent police procedurals, each with an engaging set of complex characters and a fiendish mystery to solve and, because it’s important to me, a strong sense of place. William’s Shaw’s Salt Lane (2018) the first of his Alex Cupidi series is set on Romney Marsh and the area around it. Aside from being a cracking crime novel it tackles difficult issues, like immigration, refugees and rural poverty. These crimes are grounded in modern reality with immediacy and authenticity, I will certainly read more.
Finally to Scotland and Barry Hutchison (writing as J D Kirk) gets away from the Glasgow-Edinburgh corridor and takes us to the Scottish Highlands with DCI Jack Logan. I read the first three (A Litter of Bones, Thicker Than Water and The Killing Code) in quick succession and was thoroughly entertained, the characters are well drawn and appealing and humour runs through-out.
Any or all of these would be good to curl up with while other family members indulge in a post-prandial snooze. Merry Christmas to all!